More than half of the children in British Columbia’s foster system are Aboriginal. Of that number, at least 40 percent are in non-indigenous foster homes. Within this context, photographer Jonathan Taggart documented one Aboriginal family separated by the foster care system, and on the path to reunification. Turnstyle asked him to discuss what he learned.
Turnstyle: You mention the irony that despite the government’s purported ambition to reform the segregation of the foster care system, children are still growing up in non-Aboriginal households in large numbers. Does this dissonance reveal itself in your series, and how?
JT: In a sense it doesn’t reveal itself, both by design and by circumstance. While in shooting this project I did have access to the broad spectrum of parental and family experiences, from the beginning of the reunification process to its successful completion, I didn’t seek access to the other side–the foster parent experience. I know from the parents that their two sons were placed with a non-Aboriginal family; the daughter I’m not sure about, but within the context of this story it almost doesn’t matter. In the time that’s passed since I finished the story I’ve realized that the dissonance I was witnessing was the break-up of another culture: the culture of community and family. The architects of the residential school system understood the implications of this disruption–that essentially, if you want to dismantle the edifices of culture you can simply confiscate its constituent parts, which are the bricks of family and community. I think we’re seeing the same thing happening with an overzealous foster care system today.
TS: Can you talk about anything you experienced during the parental visits that felt instructive for the future of the program?
JT: This project for me was a way of humanizing a set of statistics. Stats are illustrative but they’re not particularly evocative, and they don’t do much to explain what it’s like to have your children physically and forcefully taken away from you; what it’s like to have them cry when they have to go “home” at the end of a visit. They definitely don’t help us understand the developmental disconnect – both of child and parent – that is evident when, after a year of seeing your daughter for only 6 hours a week, you now have to learn her rhythms and sleeping patterns. I think the system could better prepare parents for that re-entry shock, certainly.
The families I spoke to during this project were also at the mercy of the three horsemen of social work, income assistance, and child & family services, and often spent whole days traveling between two or three different offices. They would arrive at one only to be told that there was a ‘T’ left uncrossed at another office, and the trek would begin again. It’s unfathomable to me that these three services don’t recognize that they have common clients (and that in Vancouver these common clients often share a common geography), and that they don’t do more to streamline their processes.
TS: As a non-Native person, can you illuminate the process of gaining the trust of the families you documented, especially given that the subject matter itself deals with a history of exploitation? Because you’ve done so much work in Native communities, what’s your approach in general to documenting them, with that history in mind?
Projects like this are at heart projects about colonialism, both historic and contemporary, and need to be approached with that in mind. I’ve had the privileged opportunity to work with several First Nations communities over the last few years, and each of these opportunities has begun with a conversation about inequality, so that history and reality is very much on the table from the outset. Through these conversations I think it becomes clear that I am an ally, that I’m there to learn, and that my process is very much collaborative, and each of these factors is important, both to me and to the communities I work with. There is a dangerous trend towards cavalierism in this profession–a sense that one can “go in”, shoot a story and get out–and I strongly believe that this attitude contributes not to decolonization but to a sustained state of separation and isolation. The projects that are effective at creating change on many levels are those that emerge from strong relationships, and I’m very fortunate to have continuing relationships with all of the communities I’ve worked with.
Read the rest
Even for many epicures who consider themselves adventurous and intrepid, “Native American cuisine” is an abstraction. After fry bread, buffalo, and corn, most laymen would be hard pressed to name its constituent ingredients or dishes, since Native cuisine hasn’t been commercialized to a degree that makes it accessible to non-Native people. More painfully for indigenous food proponents like Chef Lois Ellen Frank, many Native Americans aren’t themselves benefiting from their heritage of healthy foods. Reinvigorating the traditions associated with those foods is at the heart of the Native Foods Movement that Frank is spearheading along with many other food activists, farmers, and historians.
Frank’s work to create a new definition for Native food is tied to the pursuit of her PhD examining the Native chefs’ role in contemporary kitchens. Frank’s food-related career pursuits have been multifaceted, from photographer to chef, but a dismissive comment from someone in the publishing industry almost two decades ago turned her toward the academy. They told Frank that “Native people didn’t have a cuisine.” Frank began unpacking the pronouncement; of course, a “cuisine” is simply defined by a grouping of regional foods that are cooked on a regular basis. “If we look at the United States and all of the Native populations that occupied these areas,” Frank said, “there were regional cuisines just like there are all through Europe.”
Naturally, Frank has frequently had to contend with the culinary industry’s Euro-centric bias as she articulates her thesis. One of her assertions (initially rejected by her committee) is that Spanish-introduced foods like wine grapes and stone fruit are rightfully also components of Native cuisine. She argued that if these foods were excluded, then “you’re going to have to tell the Italians they can’t use tomatoes or pasta in any of their traditional foods because those are not native foods to them. And you can’t. You can’t undo history.”
Frank has identified three stages of evolution for Native food: pre-contact (the ten thousand plus years before the Spanish arrived on the continental U.S); first contact (the foods that the Spanish brought that were incorporated into Native cuisine); and government-issue. Pre-contact foods are abundant and diverse; Frank rattled off a list of Southwestern foods alone, accounting for cross-tribal trade, that included, “bison, elk, venison, rabbit, quail, an assortment of fowl, wild herbs, wild lettuces, cacti, berries, and various fruits,” in addition to the cultivars; corn, beans, and squash.
Comparatively, Frank’s category of government-issue food is barren and malnourishment-inducing. “Many Native people were forcibly relocated…and the government issued them basically flour and lard. They made fry bread – which is, from a culinary standpoint, pretty creative,” she said. Nevertheless, these and other army rations issued to relocated tribes was designed to augment their diet. “But in the case of Native people,” Frank said, “because they had lost their hunting and agricultural base, these foods became their diet.”
More than a century later, the health problems associated with those commodity foods are crippling Native communities. As the Native foods movement grows, Frank said she hopes to see those foods supplanted by the wholesome traditional ingredients from the first two categories. “When you revitalize (indigenous people’s) food, they reclaim all the cultural traditions that go with that. An example might be to grind corn in the traditional way, and the songs and prayers and stories that go with that –and that doesn’t even include using that in a recipe.”
To read Chef Lois Ellen Frank’s journey to the Native foods movement, read Part 1 of this story here.
Read the rest
Depending where you live, and the income tier you occupy, the foodie revolution that’s spawned movements like Slow Food and “locavorism” can feel inescapable. But these culinary constituencies have considerable overlap with one that’s largely flown under the rader – the Native foods movement.
One of its leading proponents is Sante Fe-based Chef Lois Ellen Frank, who’s working with other chefs to form a standard for the definition of Native cuisine. That quest, which will reach a benchmark this March when she defends her dissertation on Native chefs in contemporary kitchens, began almost 20 years ago when the publisher of her first book informed her that there was no such thing as Native cuisine. “This encouraged me,” Frank said wryly, “to go into academia, and prove not only do (Native people) have a cuisine – but that most Native women that cooked for big groups of people were the true definition of a chef.”
This was the second turning point in her career that Frank said was the result of a “splinter” or a “thorn.” Another moment that spurred her into change happened during culinary school, when she was told that her options were to work under a man, or become a pastry chef. “I graduated high school in 1977, and there was something that disturbed me about that statement . I know the East Coast was much more conservative in its approach to cooking, and men do dominate. It goes back to the guild system in Europe.” But being told she couldn’t be a chef-owner, Frank said, was enough to spur her into switching gears — to photography school.
Frank began what she calls a very rewarding advertising career with some of L.A.’s best food photographers. The rub? She had seen how the figurative sausage was made. “I was promoting foods that, when I saw the quality of the ingredients, wasn’t up to my personal standards…of being wholesome, hearty, organic.”
It all came to a head on a shoot that gave the star treatment to chicken nuggets. Reknowned photographer Ernst Haas asked her simply if “that was the poetry from inside my being.” Frank was floored. “He asked me what was the poetry and how could I use that as a form of expression in my photography. So that’s really when I started to look at my mom’s heritage, and documenting native food.”
Stay tuned for part two of our introduction to Lois Ellen Frank and the Native food movement.
Read the rest