When Christopher Columbus first encountered “Indians,” he formed the opinion: “These are very simple-minded and handsomely formed people.” As Robert Jago explains for The Walrus, this unjustified view of Native incompetence has persisted in some non-Natives to this day — even encountered in the way his tribe currently fishes the river named after them.
… in another news report, they advised that any salmon bought from us poses a “significant risk to human health.”
Our catch is fine for us to eat, apparently—it’s just a problem for “human” health.
Stó:lō means “river people,” and this river is full of salmon—or, at least, it used to be. It’s our staple food, eaten smoked, baked, boiled, and candied. My grandma prized the eyes, plucked out and sucked on till they popped and released their fishy goo. My nephew goes for the eggs; he quite literally licks his lips at the sight of them. My uncle takes the best cuts to smoke outdoors with a closely guarded, centuries-old family recipe.
It takes a lot of nerve to say we don’t know how to handle salmon—but I suspect the reality behind that claim is that a great many Canadians can’t imagine us knowing anything independently, as Native people.
In reality, Jago argues that it was only with the help of native knowledge and creations that non-Natives were able to create their world at all — alluded to in the name his ancestors gave to the new arrivals in Canada: xwelítem — the hungry people. A name coined after starving white miners came begging for food during the Fraser River gold rush.
Indigenous people around the world were experts at food long before non-Natives made an appearance — responsible for developing the agriculture techniques that led to the potato, maize, avocado, tomato, chocolate, and quinoa, to name but a few.
European farmers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had to leave as much as half of their fields empty at any time so as not to exhaust their growing potential. They were also overreliant on grain as one of their few sources of nutrition. The result was that, in England alone, between 1523 and 1623, there were seventeen major famines. The addition of Indigenous agricultural methods and foods domesticated by Indigenous people changed that. Where in the past, a study in Nature found, European farmers could feed 1.9 people per hectare, with our help they could now feed 4.3. Writing in Smithsonian Magazine, Charles C. Mann concludes that, with Indigenous peoples’ sharing of their domesticated foods and agricultural technology, “the revolution begun by potatoes, corn, and guano has allowed living standards to double or triple worldwide even as human numbers climbed from fewer than one billion in 1700 to some seven billion today.” didn’t hand us the keys to the modern world—they took from us the tools that built its foundations.
Non-Natives like to think that the Mayflower had Wi-Fi, that the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María brought with them consumer goods, Facebook, and nuclear medicine. In reality, they brought very little from Europe that Natives wanted beyond weapons and metalwork.