Indigeneity and Veganism intersect on spiritual, moral and practical levels. Yet why is veganism constructed as white? Why does it embody privilege? Why has it become a yuppie and judgmental lifestyle that marginalized people don’t identify with? There exist many perspectives from which to answer this question. Much of veganism’s struggle to establish itself as a social justice movement also has to do with the ignorance of the people, let’s be real, nobody likes to be told they must re-evaluate their habits! But could something much more deep-seeded, colonial and violent lie behind the perceived divide between Veganism and Indigeneity?
I argue that not only is veganism a subversive tactic against colonialism (when used correctly), it also creates a space which allows the compassionate caring for other life. Veganism itself does not equate to sainthood. In fact, to say that the animal rights movement as a whole is problematic would be an understatement. However, in all of our movements we need to constantly remind ourselves that values of compassion, freedom and love extend to everyone and everything. Many social justice movements are recognizing that governments exclude humans from society based on arbitrary value judgments. As long as we continue to see individual lives as products or commodities, we can never authentically embrace freedom or justice. As Audre Lorde says, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” I extend this quote to my fellow sisters and brothers who do not share the human species.
Veganism is mostly framed as a privileged diet which can be chosen by middle to upper class citizens. This privileged status of Veganism results in a colonial strategy to maintain white supremacy and dominance. Veganism as an upper class, dietary choice disables lower income folks to have access to healthy foods. It is a method of class warfare: keeping the poor poorer and making the rich richer. Writing this in Vancouver, British Columbia, I am aware that the poverty-stricken regions are saturated with Indigenous peoples. This comes as no surprise, as colonialism has found subtle ways to maneuver and sustain itself in our society today.
Violence has snuck its way into Indigenous cultures ever since the arrival of the first European explorers during the 18th Century. It all began with the economic incentives of a possible fur trade and later developed into a colonial occupancy that resulted in the decision to join the Canadian Confederation. The Canadian economy is now dependent on the exploitation of natural resources, particularly fishing, logging, oil extraction and mining. The development and the maintenance for such an economy came at huge expense for all Indigenous communities around Canada: forced to re-locate, commanded to abandon traditions, punished for speaking their languages, abused, killed, treated as second-class citizens, not granted the right to vote until 1960, educated in separate residential schools until 1990, their identity still not acknowledged, tokenized, their families and tribes separated, and much more hardship than I, as embodying a white settler presence myself, could ever understand.
People need to feel empowered in order to make productive decisions. The violent imperialism that has cornered Indigenous communities into poverty and crime has robbed them of agency. Their lives have been “othered” and their value within a colonial society is determined by white folks. As said by Margaret Robinson, When Veganism is framed as white, Indigenous peoples who chose an animal-free diet are portrayed as sacrificing cultural authenticity. So, at the end of the day, if Veganism at its core remains a privileged, dietary “choice” that requires expensive processed foods and imported vegetables, then it will remain an upper class, white, secluded indulgence. If. There are ways that it can in fact operate as an empowering strategy for lower income and impoverished communities. In order to do this, the mainstream portrayal of Veganism and Vegan advocacy must radically change.
Writings by feminist scholar Margaret Robinson describe Mi’kmaq legends and their relationship with animals as was one of dependence, not dominion. According to Mi’kmaq legends, human beings are intimately connected with the animal world and only survival can justify the killing of animals. These legends depict animals as having an independent life, with their own purpose, far away from simply existing for human consumption. Robinson contrasts this with the white hunter, whose view of animals requires population control, turning slaughter into a service. Many of the Mi’kmaq legends come with their own set of problems, such as the gendering of food production. Even the Mi’kmaq word for food is the same for beaver, embodying the meat-heavy food culture. However, within the legends the nonhuman animals are always characterized as independent peoples who have rights, wills and freedoms. As Robinson rightly points out, “if animal consent is required to justify their consumption, then it opens the possibility that consent might be revoked.” Not only are nonhuman animals capable of thought and speech in Mi’kmaq legends, their personhood is equal to humans: “the value of the animals lies not in its utility to man, but in its very essence as a living being.”
Many of the Mi’kmaq food traditions also empower women to be gatherers of fruit, vegetable and nuts. Robinson argues that if we recognize those traditions to be fully Native, then we can form Indigenous counter-narratives to the promotion of meat. Embedded in Mi’kmaq narratives is the personhood of nonhuman animals, their self-determination and our regret at their death. These traits allow the Mi’kmaq not to ask for their sacrifice, making a meatless diet a traditionally sound option. As Veganism testifies that the consumption of animals for food, clothing and shelter is no longer necessary; consequentially Mi’kmaq tradition suggests that the hunting and killing of our animal siblings is no longer authorized. If we desire to find a place for contemporary Indigineity, unchanging traditions need to be re-evaluated. As Robinson puts it: “There is more to my culture and to our relationship with the land, particularly as women, than hunting and killing animals.”
Dr. Rita Laws has written on the historical connections between Native Americans and Vegetarianism. Laws begins with the ironic fact that Indians are strongly associated with hunting and finishing, when, in fact, modern day plant agriculture “owes its heart and soul to Indian-taught methods of seed development, hybridization, planting, growing, irrigating, storing, utilizing and cooking.” The same cultural learnings do not exist between Indigenous ways of hunting and the modern, industrialized meat industry. With the introduction of horses and guns, colonial powers spread quickly among the Indians. The extinction of the buffalo came at no surprise. The settlers changed the Buffalo hunt from being about survival, to being about profit. It was the white man who profited from the Buffalo extinction, making life for the tribes who did not cooperate with whites much harder. Laws observes that the tribes who depended little or not at all on animal exploitation for their survival, like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Chickasaw, are thriving and growing, having assimilated without surrendering their culture. It is the introduction of European meat-eating customs that has forever changed contemporary Indigenous relations to eating animals. Laws observes that the stereotype of the Indian as a “killer of buffalo, dressed in quill-decorated buckskin, elaborately feathered headdress, and leather moccasins, stranger to vegetables” is historically inaccurate and in fact the direct result of European influence.
Artist and activist Linda G. Fisher makes the following observation of Indigenous culture: “We almost always associate the Indian – even today’s Indian – with wearing and using nonhuman animals’ hides, furs and feathers.” Fisher emphasizes that although she avoids hides, furs and follows a vegan diet, her Indianness is still critical to who she is. This highlights the struggle of linking Indingeneity to the “hunter”. Fisher continues to explain that it is not what she eats, how she looks or what she wears that makes her Indigenous. Instead, it is her commitment to the teachings of her ancient Ojibway ancestors. She continues to describe her ancestors’ relations to nature and that killing animals was instituted only by absolute necessity. Nature had agency, nature had interests, nature made the decisions. Although this attitude towards nature is re-emerging, even amongst non-Indigenous peoples, there are still Indians today who slaughter whales, eagles and all kinds of other nonhumans in the name of “tradition”. Fisher goes on to say “I have often wondered why some people witness pain and suffering, yet turn and walk away, never giving that suffering another thought, while others empathize, are affected, and are changed by such suffering forever.”
Fisher’s account of the colonizing process should sound familiar by now: “European influence introduced Native people to commercial trade, and fire power, and buffalo began to be killed in great numbers.” This is in part because Europeans believed that meat was an essential part of the human diet, whereas Native Americans had a much more varied diet. Fisher observes that today, white people and Indigenous folk are pursuing self-interests without listening to nature of nonhumans. She ends her essay by reflecting on what her ancestors’ “traditions” really entailed: “I believe, if my Indian ancestors could comment on our present “right to hunt” in a world with so many people and so few nonhuman animals, that they, who listened to the land and killed only as was necessary, would not be wasteful. I think my ancestors would tell us that it is time to stop the suffering and the killing.”
So, how do we move forward? Robinson suggests that Indigenous peoples must begin to feel empowered to embody their traditional values in new rituals. Previously, before settlement, Indigenous values of compassion and nourishment went hand in hand with occasionally hunting an animal. Today, however, this is no longer the case. Values of compassion and nourishment can be re-lived through new rituals, such as embodying a vegan lifestyle:“With the adoption of a vegan diet our meal preparation and consumption can become infused with transcendent significance, as we recall our connection with other animals, our shared connection to the creator and refigure a time when we can live in harmony with the animals.” Even though vegan choices may seem at odds with traditional practices, it is the traditional values that matter, which through daily vegan practices offer a sense of belonging to a moral community. As Robertson clearly advocates, Native culture must take on a living tradition that is more than existing as a shadow of white discourse. Indigeneity must respond to changing social and environmental circumstances, as would their ancestors.
Re-claiming authority over their own culture and values can empower those in lower income communities to stand up for themselves and discover moral agency. Rita Laws ends her essay with the mission of “moving away from European influences that did away with a healthier style of living. We must again embrace our brothers and sisters, the animals, and “return to the corn” once and for all.” In other words, Veganism must lose its white framework and begin to empower impoverished people. Veganism must adopt an identity that is not linked to race, class, or status. Specialty expensive vegan foods must stop taking centre-stage in the Vegan community. Instead, values of nonviolence and compassion must be spread through direct action, education and empowerment. Rita Laws suggests that, if the ancient ways were still observed, it may be corn (not turkey meat) that would be celebrated Thanksgiving Day.