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Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience


Traversing a range of cultures, including the Tohono O’odham of the Sonoran Desert and the Rarámuri of the Sierra Tarahumara

By Enrique Salmón
University of Arizona Press


In My Grandmother’s Kitchen

Grandma. The Dark creases on my grandma’s face deepened when she smiled. To my young mind, she seemed the perfect grandma. Her white hair contrasted with her dark brown skin. The brightness of the sun deepened the wrinkles and creases on her face. She cooked the best cactus fruit jam from the large prickly pears that grew behind the house. She always had cookies at hand when I came to visit. And she seemed to know everything about the land and food.

One day, in our yard, which was dotted with herbs and fruit trees, I watched her bend over to pick a sprig of bawena (spearmint) and hold it out for me to smell.

Her old, faded cotton dress with the flower print outlined her frail 80-year-old frame. Her full set of teeth glistened as she smiled, watching me enjoy the scent. Then, in a voice made scratchy from smoking, she explained, “That is what bawena does to your stomach; it makes it smile.” I cannot forget the many times when my grandma or my mother rescued my upset stomach with some hot tea of bawena. Always, after just one cup, my insides would begin to smile again, ready for some more food that I probably shouldn’t have eaten.

I understand now what my grandma, my mother, as well as my grandfather and other family members were teaching me. They introduced me to Rarámuri traditional knowledge. I learned the names of plants, their uses, and their place in Rarámuri culture,philosophy, and cosmology. I understood them to be relatives and living beings with emotions and lives of their own. I learned that they were part of my life as well and that I should always care for them. In short, my family led me into the traditional ecological knowledge of the Rarámuri.

My grandparents’ souls now rest in the Milky Way with the other Rarámuri spirits that have departed this Earth. But their lessons live on in my memory. I recall my grandma’s smiling face and her short, shuffling gait. If I am ill and drinking a steaming mug of bawena, I hear her scratchy voice describing the uses of other plants from our yard.

The knowledge I learned from my family was one aspect of a trove of culturally accumulated ecological knowledge. When they introduced me to individual plants, they also introduced my kinship to the plants and to the land from where they and we had emerged. They were introducing me to my relatives. Through this way of knowing, especially with regard to kinship, I realized a comfort and a sense of security that I was bound to everything around me in a reciprocal relationship.

The Book Description:

“Eating is not only a political act, it is also a cultural act that reaffirms one’s identity and worldview,” Enrique Salmón writes in Eating the Landscape. Traversing a range of cultures, including the Tohono O’odham of the Sonoran Desert and the Rarámuri of the Sierra Tarahumara, the book is an illuminating journey through the southwest United States and northern Mexico. Salmón weaves his historical and cultural knowledge as a renowned Indigenous ethnobotanist with stories American Indian farmers have shared with him to illustrate how traditional Indigenous foodways—from the cultivation of crops to the preparation of meals—are rooted in a time-honored understanding of environmental stewardship.

In this fascinating personal narrative, Salmón focuses on an array of Indigenous farmers who uphold traditional agricultural practices in the face of modern changes to food systems such as extensive industrialization and the genetic modification of food crops. Despite the vast cultural and geographic diversity of the region he explores, Salmón reveals common themes: the importance of participation in a reciprocal relationship with the land, the connection between each group’s cultural identity and their ecosystems, and the indispensible correlation of land consciousness and food consciousness. Salmón shows that these collective philosophies provide the foundation for indigenous resilience as the farmers contend with global climate change and other disruptions to long-established foodways. This resilience, along with the rich stores of traditional ecological knowledge maintained by indigenous agriculturalists, Salmón explains, may be the key to sustaining food sources for humans in years to come.

Buy the book here.