MNN Column for February 2008 (unedited version)

I took a jump-hop flight to Hilo, Hawaii last week to catch a workshop on lomilomi (Hawaiian massage) and healing plants, and to attend a reading and workshop by two writers from Alaska. As soon as I landed I called Mililani Trask, the brilliant Hawaiian attorney and activist. I hadn’t seen Mil in a few years, so I was surprised when I reached her and found out that a native contingent from the Mainland, led by Winona LaDuke, the Anishnabe activist, was speaking that night in Hilo on protecting our food from genetic engineering, and Mil was going to introduce Winona. So I cut out on the reading to go hear what was going on, and to see Mililani who I hadn’t seen in years. I respect her. She has literally given her life to the native community in service. When she ran for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs several years ago, there were posters all throughout the islands in support of Mililani. She won by a landslide. No one has ever won office with that large a majority. The community can be contentious and divided, like ours, despite the aloha philosophy which is the base of their original teachings. I admire much about Mil. She worked in Calcutta, India with Mother Teresa to learn compassion. She has experienced, like the rest of us, that the hardest test of compassion is working with your own people. The Hawaiian community, like our own, too often chokes up with jealousy, self-doubt and shame.
The meeting room in the Buddhist temple filled with community, a mix of Hawaiian, Asian, local liberal political types, and hippies. One side of the room was lined with tables sponsored by various local organizations. I went over to watch a Hawaiian man pound poi. Poi is made of taro root, or I should say kalo, the Hawaiian word, which is the food staple of Hawaiians. It reminds me of our sofkey. It is a starch, without much strong taste, unless you let it sour. Some Hawaiians love sour poi as much as some of our people love sour sofkey. I watched as he took a root, put it in the lava stone bed, flattened and kneaded it with a poi pounder. It turned into a kind of purple pudding. He let us taste it. Traditionally, you use your middle finger to dip in and eat. I could taste the rich complexity of the earth, the sky, and the love that this man put into growing taro. He had talked and sung to his plants.
(Have you ever contrasted the taste of home grown food with food grown by underpaid workers, by multinational corporations who are only thinking of money?)
Luana Busby-Neff opened the program with an oli wehe, a chant. Her voice is blessed. The spirit in her voice turned us together to listen, to be together.
The first speaker turned out to be the poi farmer I had just been speaking to, James Cain. He opened with a song to honor a taro farmer, Uncle Ray who had just passed from this life. He was in his seventies, a humble man who taught James all about the taro. Uncle Ray told him: “Think about things in a positive way.” This sounds very familiar to Mvskoke philosophy.
“Taro goes back 30,000 years. You find it in New Guinea, India, Africa, the Carribbean... Taro is family. Taro doesn’t just feed the body. It feeds the mind. It teaches you patience. It teaches you respect, respect for ancestors…elders…and respect for the land…it feeds the spirit.”
He joked “We’re taro-ists! We’re pushing for a ban on genetic engineering.
Who has the right to control life forms? The scientists protest that it is their academic freedom, to do what they want. What about academic responsibility?
For the Hawaiians, taro (or kalo) is literally our elder brother...”
James is a beautiful and humble man, like his teacher Uncle Ray.
Next Mililani introduced Winona. In her introduction Mil pointed out that pharmaceutical companies are claiming private ownership of life itself. “What we are dealing here with rice, taro and corn is bio-piracy….the purity of our food is part of cultural sovereignty... “ Then Mil was gone. She had an international flight to catch the next morning. She’d switched flights so she could properly introduce Winona.
Winona LaDuke has been at the forefront of developing economic sustainability for her tribe, and of movements for integrity of our cultures. For her people’s culture and life, it’s wild rice.
“Wild rice” she said, “…is one of our most significant relatives.” Their connection goes way back. Her people originally lived on the Eastern Seaboard, their ancestors followed the prophets who said that it was best they move because there was going to be a drastic change and the east and they’d no longer be able to sustain themselves there. They followed a shell in the sky to where “food grew on the water”. That was the wild rice. They continue to recognize the gift. Recently when Thai farmers came and saw that the rice grew without cultivation, they cried at such a gift, for they work hard planting and cultivating rice.
Wild rice sustains them in body, soul and mind. It is also a way to sustain the Anishnabe people economically. They’ve struggled with corporations who wish to patent the DNA and steal the rice for cultivation, for money. They want to own the idea, spirit and body of rice. Right now three-fourths of the wild rice is grown in paddies in California. One of the largest is a company called “Indian Harvest” which is ironically owned by the Dutch Trading Company.
Corn was one of the first of our native plants to be patented.
She reminded us that the people and their rice are fighting to live with dignity.
She and others are working on a federal law to force the growers to label their product “cultivated”. “This is a fair trade and justice issue” she said. In 2000 the University of Minnesota cracked the DNA sequence for wild rice. Now they want to patent it. Ultimately that would mean that the Anishnabe would no longer have the right to harvest their rice, without paying royalties to the corporate patent owners!
Louie Hena from Tesuque people spoke of connection, the spiral of life, and how all of us are persons with rights, from corn to animals to plants. Paula Garcia from the New Mexico spoke of the protection of water as a community resource, and Andrea Hanks, Ojibwe and Dine works on legislation protecting wild rice.
As I listened I kept moving outwards into a larger and larger perspective, even as I moved inward, much like the spiral Louie talked about so eloquently. As I traveled the individual human and plant were linked. The farther-closer I moved the human and plant merged. The individual members of the tribe became one, then eventually, we are altogether as one body.
Something to think about: what we ingest, in food, thoughts, vision either serves us or hurts us.

Joy Harjo January 19, 2008 Honolulu

1 comment:

Karisma said...

I don't know why (sounds naive to say now), but I was shocked and horrified to read that the government can patent a naturally-occurring product of nature.

It should not be surprising, given all the natural things and people we have claimed ownership of in this country, but owning the rights to a grain of rice just seems so absurd.

Thank you for the insight.