How Kirsten Kirby-Shoote Protects Indigenous Food Pathways Going Forward
Five years ago, Kirsten Kirby-Shoote booked a one-way trip to Detroit and has never looked back. Urban gardener, seed keeper and member of the Tlingit Nation, Kirby-Shoote grew up near Portland, Oregon, and moved to Michigan to join WWOOF, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a program where workers trade farm labor for board and lodging. Now 28, Kirby-Shoote has woven herself into the fabric of the local food scene, establishing a network of producers and laying the foundations for a system that elevates the Indigenous food sovereignty movement while supporting and empowering. protecting the health and spirit of their community with nutritious food. , culturally relevant foods.
While working with Michigan farms and groups like the Native Food Organization I-Collective, Kirby-Shoote has developed a vision of the legacy they want to leave behind, a vision rooted in the past, present and future of Indigenous peoples. This work has manifested itself in the establishment of a network of seed custodians across the country and the preservation of traditional and medicinal foods outside of capitalist profit systems. Kirby-Shoote has also made their home a local gathering space and hosted pop-ups that raise awareness about Indigenous culture and cuisine. Most recently, Kirby-Shoote has been spending his time cultivating land in Highland Park, including tending a cornfield. But they don’t plan to sell corn to local bakeries. For them, this food is sacred and belongs to their community.
Eater: How do you approach urban agriculture? And how is it different from other approaches you have experienced?
Kirsten Kirby-Shoote: Much of urban agriculture – especially in Detroit and especially with nonprofit structures that are inherently toxic – is still based on capitalism: how much food do you produce, not how many people do you feed. with food. It’s not a numbers game for me. It’s a lot of interpersonal relationships that are strengthened by the ability to nourish oneself, not the “here’s free kale” kind of thing. I believe that plants have power and autonomy, and who am I to say “produce” or “meet your expectations”? It’s much more about creating an environment where things feel in balance. I’d rather have a meadow than a creole house in the middle of town.
How do you cultivate native foods in the city?
I work with a lot of other seed companies, especially in the indigenous community. It is a good thing to be able to talk about seeds as our parents; someone gave their greatest attention and blessings to a seed before it even reached me. These seeds were passed down from our ancestors, and the fact that they are here today is a testament to the care that everyone puts into them. Continuing this and not buying from big farm companies is much more meaningful to me and I’m sure it makes sense for the soil I’m placing them in.
I just took this great trip and met a lot of my seed keeper friends. Just being able to activate trade routes in this modern setting makes no sense to me. I carry these seeds like a lighted torch, and I do not do it for myself. I’m doing it for future generations – generations that I can’t even understand – because someone else did it for me.
Indigenous cuisine is increasingly a part of traditional conversations about food. What do you think is driving this?
It’s strange because [Indigenous food has] always been there, and the lure of gaining visibility in the media and building a larger audience is a double-edged sword. There is no right way to do it. It’s very difficult to tell people about it, because there are parts that are so sacred and that are not shared information, and the general public – non-natives – don’t understand it. And then in today’s society, where everything is shared and reprogrammed, there is a real lack of consideration for the sanctity of food and culture.
But having a platform is crucial to keeping our sovereignty visible and alive in many ways. I want a little native person to say, “Oh, I can do that. It’s something real ”, because when I started in food, I had maybe five people to look up to. The media have been a big part of this. Google typing “native farmers” and “native chiefs,” the results are slim. Being able to let our children’s children know that this work is precious, keeps our people healthy, and keeps our traditions alive, I think it’s worth it.
What is your biggest fear about communicating with traditional media?
Sharing too much – sharing something, then exploiting, because that’s historically what happened to our land and our water and pretty much everything. Once settler colonialism arrived, our life and habits were treated as a resource. When people pin something as a resource, it removes the connection you feel. When water becomes a resource, it is no longer alive. There is no longer any connection with water; it’s treated like a commodity, and I don’t want aboriginal food to be commodified.
When did you know you wanted to work in food justice?
After my father passed away from a preventable disease, wanting to change the food system became a very real idea in my head. Much of the pop-ups and all the gatherings I do are educational in nature and related to protecting the land, water, and related plants. So by having this platform and cooking for people, I don’t want all of it to be lost on people that this food is our past and this is our gift and this is our future.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?
I would like to create a food access point so that the indigenous people of the city can access traditional food and medicine. It’s like a food bank but not a food bank, because I used to go there when I was younger. I want to change the definition of access to food. I want it to be a source of pride for people to stop and have as much wild rice or corn as they need and not be associated with guilt in any way. The systems in place right now don’t allow it because of capitalism, but if you look at the parents of plants and how much they care and provide, then translate that into human-to-human interaction, there’s this tremendous depth there. I think doing that and being able to feed people this food and provide it to the community is what I really want to focus on this year.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to do similar work?
Even though there may not seem to be a path, or if it is not as clear as some other paths in life, we have the ability to clear paths and go our own way. Whether it’s something you’ve seen someone else do or something that you think no one else has done, go down this path and know that the ancestors guide us every step of the way, so that you are never alone on this journey.
How can readers support your work?
I’m so bad at allocating work or asking for money, but I think I’ll have some kind of crowdfunding soon to buy chest freezers and other equipment like the cornmeal crusher and packaging . But I also recommend doing some research on the indigenous peoples of the area you occupy and realizing that the space and the land belong to someone else; do this job yourself by going to these websites and running coins to them. I-Collective is a very good resource for this. Our job is to educate the public about Indigenous farming and culinary practices.
Rosa Maria Zamarrón is a Detroit-based documentary and portrait photographer.