The Russian Federation is home to well over 100 indigenous peoples, 41 of whom are grouped together in the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), a non-governmental organization of small-numbered indigenous peoples which legally recognizes an indigenous people only when it has a population of less than 50,000 and lives in the Russian Far North, Far East or Siberia.
At Indigenous Terra Madre 2019 we welcome Nikolai Pinoev of the Buryats people, Julia Fominykh of the Tubular people, and Ekaterina Koroleva of the Nivkhi people. The delegates represent both small-numbered indigenous peoples and those that are too large to be part of RAIPON.
We spoke to Julia and Ekaterina ahead of the event, which takes place from October 11 to 14 in Hokkaido, Japan, the native land of the Ainu people.
Julia, could you tell us about yourself?
My maternal grandmother belonged to the indigenous peoples of the Altai Mountains—the Tubalars—and my grandfather was a native Altai from the Mundus clan. So my mother is half Mundus and half Tubalar, and my father belongs to the Kerzhak Old Believers.
For 20 years I worked as a cook in various restaurants and cafes, until I was able to open my own restaurant. Now I can create my own menu, choose my own ingredients, and train young cooks the way I see fit, without having to convince the management of my every decision, often related to the selection of local ingredients from our local biodiversity. This coincided with my first contact with Slow Food, which reassured me, knowing I was not alone, but part of a network of millions of like-minded people around the world. This gave me strength.
And how have you been working with Slow Food since then?
It started with a small project for our Slow Food Community based around the restaurant. I want to start with the fact that gastronomy in the context of Slow Food should be understood as a craft. From generation to generation, people have passed on their cooking skills, recipes, experiences. We’ve carefully preserved all the traditions associated with food, understanding that food is the basis of life, health and well-being. It is very difficult to reproduce these dishes in modern urban conditions. Attempts to modernize a particular dish lead not only to simplification, but also to distortion, and consequently, to a change in the taste of the dish.
What are the challenges for those who want to safeguard local gastronomic heritage?
The declining availability of local products and the spread of industrially produced food have caused a shift from traditional food resources to commercial products and convenience foods. Despite the loss of many traditional food products and dishes, we can still restore and strengthen local food systems by using time-tested knowledge and techniques to conserve biodiversity. We’ll feel the benefits today, and in the future. One simple solution for the problems of the population in the Altai Mountains lies in their own food history. We collect data on traditional food sources and share it with local people, allowing them to rediscover the nutritional opportunities present in the Altai ecosystem. The first step towards maintaining biodiversity is awareness. To take advantage of the benefits, you first need to know about their existence.
What should be the focus of the Indigenous Terra Madre and Slow Food Networks in the future?
Preservation of local food products, biodiversity and gastronomic culture, preserving and spreading traditional knowledge, and supporting the health of the people, especially the younger generation. The most important role in promoting these ideas belongs to farmers, indigenous communities, restaurateurs, cooks, ecologists, businessmen, scientists and all who advocate for a healthy environment, food and lifestyle.
In August we held the first Terra Madre Altai 2019 festival, in which all 10 regions of the Altai Republic took part. In the program of the festival, we involved all the traditional formats of Slow Food: thematic forums and discussions, taste workshops and culinary master classes, tasting seminars and a theater of taste. No one expected this result. We managed to gather more than 30,000 guests. Today it is the most successful project in the Altai Mountains. Now, during the period from November 18th to 24th, we will hold the youth student festival “Terra Madre Altai” together with the Gorno-Altai State Polytechnic College.
Events like Indigenous Terra Madre are very important for our understanding of what we should do next, and how. It’s a chance to exchange experience, and hopefully get answers to questions that can only be given when people are united by the same idea: the desire to change the future and protect our descendants from harmful actions, views and beliefs.
And Ekaterina, what about you?
I represent the Nivkh, one of the indigenous groups of the Russian Federation. There are more than 4000 Nivkh people living in the Far East of the country, split between Khabarovsk Krai on the mainland and the island of Sakhalin. As a member of Slow Food Russia, I see it as a great opportunity to save and support the traditional food knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and the biodiversity they safeguard.
What makes the food heritage of Sakhalin different from the rest of Russia?
The Indigenous Peoples who inhabit the island: in addition to the Nivkh, there are also the Orok people, of whom only around 350 remain, all on Sakhalin, the Nanai and the Evenks. Their traditional way of life has consisted of fishing, hunting and gathering the wild plants of the island: all of this makes the food of Sakhalin unique.
What’s the connection between Slow Food Sakhalin and the Ark of Taste?
Moscow, there was a national Ark of Taste cooking competition where different Slow Food cooks from across Russia had to make something from the Ark or use an Ark of Taste ingredient. So we presented Mos Sweet Jelly, which is made from a mixture of dried fish skin and berries. It’s a very typical dish of the Nivkh people.
This year we held another similar festival in Moscow, Terra Madre – Indigenous Peoples: Wild Plants, to showcase the diversity of wild herbs used by different peoples across Russia. More than 40 products from nine regions were presented at the Ark of Taste contest, in which people were invited to bring distinctive ingredients and recipes from their traditional gastronomy. There were three Sakhalin products among the winners, which we will now nominate for inclusion on the Ark: Klopovka berry syrup, wild parsley and sarana root soup, and Kutagarnik tea.
What are your hopes for Indigenous Terra Madre in Japan?
I’m really looking forward to the event because I have never been to Japan before, though it is our closest neighbor, and the Ainu people of Hokkaido have a long history on the island of Sakhalin too . I hope to learn more about the direction Slow Food is taking for the future, and to share what Slow Food in Russia has been doing to engage Indigenous Peoples and grow our network.
By Jack Coulton, October 3rd 2019