The Ancient Future: Diasporic Residency and Food-based Knowledges in the Work of American Indigenous and Pacific Austronesian Writers
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The Ancient Future:
Diasporic Residency and Food-based Knowledges in the Work of American Indigenous and Pacific Austronesian Writers

For over a decade, I have been traveling to Taiwan to work with the Native American Literature study group of Taiwan (NAL, a circle of scholars from all across the island dedicated to the study of contemporary Native North American literature and to the emerging contemporary literature of the poets and novelists born into Taiwan’s Austronesian tribal groups. Although origin theories are not settled, Austronesian speaking groups are thought to have migrated to Taiwan either from the mainland of China or from the Malay Archipelago beginning approximately 6,000 years ago, then later, migrating from Taiwan across Southeast Asia and throughout the Pacific region known as Oceania. According to the Council of Indigenous Peoples, a Taiwanese ministry-level organization charged with carrying out coordination and planning of indigenous affairs, there are currently fourteen nationally-recognized Austronesian tribes on the island. Hsinya Huang, a leading literary critic with expertise on both Native American Literatures and the contemporary literatures of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, has noted that national recognition of these tribes “marked a milestone in Taiwanese history” and provided “consistent and progressive formulation and execution of indigenous policies and coordinated planning for...the wellness of aboriginal peoples;” however, much remains to be done and indigenous groups continue to work “for self-reliance and self-affirmation” (165).

Much of the work I have presented in lectures and study group discussions in Taiwan has appeared in three recent essays, “Todos Somos Indios,” “Medicine Food,” [End Page 5] and “Seeking the Corn Mothers.” These essays detail the history of a half-century of social justice and environmental alliance-formation among indigenous peoples in the Americas and explicate the reasons why indigenous peoples around the world are advocating for a rights- and culturally-based approach to food. Each essay builds on earlier work found in American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place, in which I explore how literature set within Native North American communities enhances understanding of the social and environmental injustices that followed the colonization, conquest, slavery, and exploitation of indigenous peoples and lands. I discuss how Native North American indigenous writers represent environmental injustices in their communities in ways that direct readers away from romanticized environmentalist concepts such as ‘‘wilderness’’ and towards more sophisticated understandings of the relations of humans to nonhumans (Adamson, American Indian 112). My recent work examines why Native North American literature is depicting characters that work to protect “first foods” and make international debates surrounding the notion of access to culturally meaningful foods as a human right more understandable and persuasive to audiences around the world.

While in Taiwan, it has been my honor to travel extensively with Hsinya Huang, a professor at National Sun-yat Sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to visit many Austronesian villages, and to talk to the farmers and families who still prepare traditional first foods which are foraged in the high volcanic mountains, grown in terraced gardens, or collected from the rivers and ocean. Huang is a recognized expert on the cultures and foodways of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and personally knows many emerging Austronesian writers who are publishing novels, poetry and creative non-fiction in their original languages, in Chinese, and in Taiwanese. Notably, Huang has written many scholarly articles examining these literary works and translated some of them into English to make them more accessible to a wider audience (Huang 172, n. 17).

In this essay, I will explore the ways in which a growing number of indigenous women writers around the world are depicting the links between their ancient cultures and foodways, human rights and environmental justice. Like their North American counterparts, indigenous Austronesian women are drawing attention to a growing movement that is alternatively being called the “local foods,” “food justice,” or “food sovereignty movement.” In what follows, I will examine how these women are illustrating what is at stake when the relationship between people and the “first foods” they gather and cultivate is put at risk or interrupted. Focusing on Navajo and Tohono O’odham women writers who live in the American Southwest...