Back Forty: Talking About Indigenous Foods with Gather Director Sanjay Rawal

Director Sanjay Rawal caught up with FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz to talk about his documentary film Bring together, which started streaming on Netflix this month. The film delves into the destruction of Native American eating habits as a dimension of cultural genocide, but it doesn’t end there. He then goes on to tell how American Indians actively engaged in food sovereignty as a way to change the narrative and move forward.

People like Nephi Craig, an Apache chef from White Mountain, who is opening a restaurant that showcases local ingredients. Or Twila Cassadore, an Apache from San Carlos, who trains young people in traditional knowledge of wild plants. There’s a teenage Cheyenne River Sioux tribe Elsie Dubray examining healthy fats from a buffalo diet for a science competition. And finally, Sam Gensaw, who fights to save the Klamath River and the salmon fishing tradition of his Yurok tribe in California.

While these stories take place against a painful historical background, they are ultimately hopeful, showing the personal dimension of cultural healing. As Rawal puts it, “The renaissance of food systems is the rebirth of lifestyles from when Native Americans were free.

What were you looking for in these characters?

Our mandate was to make a film on Amerindian food sovereignty. And the reach was just too big for me to really wrap my head. I mean, first of all, food sovereignty means something really different for each of the 574 federally recognized tribes – different traditions, different practices, different languages ​​- but the impact of the genocide was similar. And so in trying to create something visual, we could only really look at the areas of North America that were affected by military occupation, at a time when there was actual photographic or film evidence.

So you couldn’t focus on the East Coast tribes?

Much of what happened on the east coast was a high level of forced displacement. And most of these tribes ended up west of the Mississippi, and then faced a second wave of military occupation, after the Civil War. So I really wanted to focus on the areas of the United States that did not necessarily undergo colonial occupation, but occupation by the United States military. So, you know, the Lakota, the natives of the plains, the Apaches, then the untold genocide that happened in California around the gold rush and after.

Twila Cassadore (left) teaches foraging. Photo by Renan Ozturk

Much of the history of the American Indians is that of genocide, of that horrific past. But what I found interesting about the film was that these stories were all consciously positive.

You know, there is a tendency in all kinds of media portrayal of Native Americans to focus on trauma. And that’s not what keeps populations together. What unites them is cultural identity, spiritual identity. And it allows everyone to move forward. It has always been obvious to me in Indian country.

And you focused on the food. It seemed like you were arguing that food was at the heart of culture.

We all come from local ancestry, but for most of us that ancestry goes back several generations. But you can imagine being in one place and understanding ecology so deeply that cultural and spiritual traditions flow from this relationship. Each tradition has a cultivated sense of gratitude for specific foods, an identity based on that. And then imagine that identity being destroyed, consciously, as someone walks in and destroys your food system.

Like the buffaloes you report in the movie were slaughtered.

This is the first step. It is as if they are removing your connection to your history, your spiritual ceremonies and your cultural ceremonies. And then what happened with the indigenous populations was that their children were forcibly abducted and placed in boarding schools, and punished for speaking their language. So you are removing the memory, you are removing the language, and you have really damaged someone’s sense of self. And so the rebirth of food systems is the rebirth of lifestyles from the days when Native Americans were free.

There’s a personal dimension to one of the stories as well, with the chef having a pretty traumatic story. But he was looking for a way out and also linked it to the wider trauma of the people.

I mean, we were doing the movie mainly for the Indian country and so we didn’t really care about the things that we knew they already knew. We do not define historical trauma, we do not go through the history of a genocide. We needed to focus on the journey of these characters to come to a definition of food sovereignty that meant something to their people.

Sam Gensaw from the Yurok tribe. Photo by Renan Ozturk

Considering this audience, what was the reception?

Well, you know, we didn’t get any interest from the big festivals or the big distributors right off the bat. Even when we presented the film, many potential funders felt our budget was too high for this topic. We heard these things even from wardens who were people of color. And it just shows the invisibility of Native Americans and the kind of perpetuation of that invisibility.

Was there any reluctance to broach the subject?

It was more like, “If you don’t want to make a edgy, traumatic movie, nobody’s going to want to watch it.”

They basically wanted the story they knew.

Yes, they wanted their definition of what a Native American is to a non-Native. But we started showing the film at human rights film festivals and then at conferences of indigenous health professionals working in the Indian country. We started sort of a sweet version in August 2020 at a time when people really needed positive stories. And, I think, it really struck a chord with viewers. And when we launched on downloadable platforms like iTunes and Amazon in September 2020 – as a film with no marketing budget and truly no film festival pedigree – we did surprisingly well.

Was it word of mouth?

We have a good New York Times review, but we couldn’t get any other life-saving publicity. But a lot of kids, especially those under 25, could really see it.

You’ve focused on these four characters, and one thing I thought about is that this is such a huge problem and these solutions are so personal but also small.

And they are. But Native Americans’ problems are like canaries in the coal mine. You know, when our Yurok characters fight for the health of the Klamath River, the ramifications are all up and down in California and Oregon. The extraction of resources, the mismanagement of the environment obviously begins in rural America and most often crosses the Indian country.

But on the other side of the camera, it’s hard to find those people whose stories resonate – then to find those moments in front of the camera, which you have. As with the fisherman Yurok.

I met Sammy Gensaw on a beach north of Fort Bragg Mendocino. You know, him and his crew, they’re all young, the world is in front of them. There is so much innocence. However, they are in a world that they understand they would like to deny their existence. We were like, hang out with these kids on the river with the camera. And even though we know there’s a political story – they’re protesting a roadblock – let’s dive deeper and don’t make a protest movie of it. Let’s see what they do from day to day to survive. And let’s focus on that, because that’s what food sovereignty is right now.

Nohemi M. Moore