Biiskaabiiyang: The Process of Returning to Ourselves

The Anishinaabe are people of a particular place, as the Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes. Our identities, histories, spirituality, and traditions are inseparable from our respective ancestral territories. The very fabric of who we are is defined by the landscape of interconnected relationships and our responsibilities to all our kin—all of those human and non-human relatives that we live with in interdependent, mutually-beneficial relationships within this place. This is the foundation of our worldview.

These cultural teachings are our Original Instructions of what it means to be human— our roles and responsibilities, how to live in balanced, good relationships with the rest of the world. These teachings inform our seasonal practices which make up our place-based lifeways. From this perspective, the preservation of foodways goes beyond basic sustenance—they affirm and renew relationships, nourish our spirits, and help us to be in balance with one another. Foodways are core to expressing our identities, are part of our spiritual practices, and play a role in our cosmologies. 

However, over generations, many communities have experienced disruptions or disconnection from our foods and land-based practices. Food and land have always been weaponized against Indigenous peoples to coerce them into colonial agendas. These are the origin stories for many social and health disparities we see today. Indigenous food movements recognize that revitalizing these foodways is essential to our survival, cultural preservation, and sovereignty. 

Some call this process of revitalizing traditional lifeways “decolonization,” but in our language we say it is Biiskaabiiyang—a process of returning to ourselves. Recovering our land-based cultures, identities, and wellness is really about remembering who we are and living out our spiritual responsibility. Reclamation of ancestral lands, waters, and sacred sites is fundamental to preserving land-based practices and lifeways– without these we cannot be people of a particular place. The Indigenous food sovereignty movement recognizes that this is as much about upholding our sacred responsibilities as it is about protecting and exercising our treaty rights.

Our cultures have endured because our daily practices are aligned with Natural Law and the Earth’s rhythms. Every plant, every animal, and even the weather– they all have seasons, cycles that dictate how they exist in the world. Our Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is specialized knowledge belonging to a specific culture and a particular locale. Our hyper-local sense of time is based on generations of observations and collective knowledge about our plant and animal relatives’ lifecycles; today, people refer to this study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena as phenology. This intimate knowledge of place informs our seasonal lifestyles, foodways, and land stewardship practices.

In our traditional Anishinaabe calendar, the names of each lunar cycle correspond with what is occurring in our local environment at that particular time and what human practices are in season. It is here that you can see that Indigenous cultures come from the perspective of place-knowing, rather than place-making.

When certain labor-intensive foods are in season and in great abundance, we gather together to share in the collective work of harvesting and processing these foods. Throughout the year, the Anishinaabe make their seasonal food rounds, convening in various parts of the region to work cooperatively in foraging, fishing, and harvesting camps. For example, during Sugarbush Moon, Anishinaabe people know that this moon (along with the snow beginning to melt) signals that the maple sap is starting to run. Communities will gather in the woods for what we call Sugarbush— to begin tapping, hauling and boiling sap, making syrup and sugar. This practice of making seasonal rounds or camps is a core part of Anishinaabe foodways. 

In the time between seasonal food camps, Anishinaabe people engage in extensive and sophisticated agricultural practices, which also follow lunar phases. Sowing seeds, transplanting, and other garden tasks have ideal times that follow the lunar phases—again, this knowledge is based off of generations of observations and learning the conditions in which these plant relatives thrive. 

Anishinaabe agricultural practices include cultivating food forests, diverse annual crops in guild systems, or what some folks refer to as companion planting. One of the most well-known of these guilds is the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash. The Three Sisters garden embodies interdependence. When planted close together, these sisters offer their unique gifts to the group. Corn, the oldest sister, roots herself steadily into the soil and provides a tall pole for beans to climb. Bean, the middle sister, climbs ambitiously while fixing essential nutrients such as nitrogen into the soil—making those nutrients more available to the group. Meanwhile, little sister squash helps retains soil moisture by shading the ground with her broad leaves and her prickly vines help to guard the guild against pests. In their interdependence, the Three Sisters show that when we are able to share our individual gifts with the larger community, we all thrive.

Extensive trade routes along with advanced knowledge in plant breeding resulted in hundreds of regionally adapted varieties of these food crops. As many varieties of these crops exist, so do the variety of traditional stories and cultures surrounding them. In that way, the practices of seed keepers also make them historians and cultural memory keepers, passing on the stories of how Indigenous peoples and their plant-kin have evolved through millennia together on this shared landmass. As seeds are traded from hand to hand, community to community, finding themselves in new regions, the ancestral knowledge related to growing, processing, and cooking these plants travels with it. 

Our foodways are one of the greatest examples of Indigenous resilience. Anishinaabe people have been actively stewarding and managing this territory for as long as we’ve been here. This territory was not some untouched wilderness. It was lovingly cultivated and has been fiercely protected by generations. It honors the generations before us, who safeguarded this land and water. It tells the stories of people who have kept this knowledge, these foodways, and land management practices alive. People whose names we may never know, but who were thinking of us. It tells us of the people who are doing tremendous work to preserve and revitalize this knowledge today. 

Shiloh Maples is the Upper Midwest Coordinator for the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, one of the signature programs of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. She is an Anishinaabe educator, organizer, and seed keeper. 

This story was originally published in our 2021 Local Food Guide for Michigan. Get a copy of the Guide here.