Interview with an Indigenous Food Activist: Ethan Tyo

Name: Ethan Tyo 
Location: Syracuse, NY 
Education/background: Syracuse University ’17 G’22 
Project name: The AlterNative Project 
Tribe: Akwesasne Mohawk, Wolf Clan 

Ethan Tyo in white shirt standing in front of white brick wall
Ethan Tyo

What led to your passion for indigenous foods? 
This project and the drivers behind it came from my personal experiences growing up in a food desert where many of our traditional food sources were damaged or restricted. It wasn’t until I started school at Syracuse University that I began to learn about food, nutrition, and the cultural significance of our eating habits. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I lost 100 pounds, changed to a plant-based lifestyle, and blogged my journey on social media, finding a passion for exploring and educating others on alternative foodways. 

Upon returning to Syracuse University to pursue a master’s in food studies, I began to focus on those experiences and how I can connect my studies to my passions, cultural understanding, and self-development. I delved into understanding how tribal food systems were created and destroyed through colonization and the remaining systemic issues that continue to be a detriment to community health and food sovereignty. 

I knew that I wanted to create a project that would work to remediate our lost food culture and inspire others to join in the resurgence of Indigenous food culture towards creating sustainable and self-sufficient localized tribal food systems across nations so that communities can heal and empower their youth. 

Why do you think it’s important to make traditional foods accessible for Natives? 
Food is one of the most vital foundations to society and having fair and equitable access to foods that are nutritious and culturally appropriate is the keystone to our survival as a people and as a culture. I grew up in an area where we were told not to eat from the land, that the fish, animals, and plants were tainted with toxins from runoff and industry plants upstream. I grew up not knowing most of my extended family as many passed due to health-related illnesses…another symptom of our disconnect from the land and our foods. I grew up not knowing where food came from and how it got onto grocery store shelves, or the detriment that our food systems were putting us in. But others don’t need to grow up that way. 

Beyond feeding ourselves, our seeds and knowledge of the land is endangered by the growth of industrial agriculture and economic systems that value profit over culture. Adding to it the disconnect from our land through the removal and resettlement acts, positioning many nations on land that was barren or lacking the plants and animals necessary to provide for our communities, there are many layers of complexity that make this work difficult. But this difficulty highlights the necessity of the work and commitment to centering Indigenous values into the work we do. 

What is the importance of an indigenous diet for a healthy lifestyle? 
The health of our communities starts with the foods we consume. In an age of convenience and ultra-processed junk foods piled high on every shelf, many of our youth grow up eating less and less of our traditional foods. That lack of nutritious whole foods and the practices that go into growing, preparing, and cooking have created a disconnect between the land, our bodies, and our minds. When we begin to nourish our bodies and minds with traditional foods, we begin to take back our ways of understanding the world around us.  

I’ve experienced this throughout my wellness journey. I began learning how to cook for myself and learning about nutrition, getting more interested in making healthy foods appetizing to others. As I’ve come to understand what my own body needs and what makes me feel the best, I have slowly adopted more traditional foods into my diet.  

Learning about these foods from seed to table and being able to take that journey alongside them was empowering for me. Indigenous foods ground us to the land in a way that no store-bought meal could.

Traditional foods go beyond the dinner table, and I believe that an Indigenous diet is a pathway towards restoring our communities. 

What ways are you involved in the education, restoration and accessibility of traditional Native foods? 
My project, AlterNative, was built upon the work that previous generations of Indigenous scholars at Syracuse University laid for us to succeed in higher education. I recognized an opportunity to create space for experiential workshops around traditional foodways, building a bridge between activities from home and the everyday college experience for Indigenous students. 

This work began with outlining ideas and strategies with the university administration to push the program forward and reimagine the Indigenous higher education experience. From this, I looked locally to see what this “space” could look like, and how we could re-establish relations between universities and the respective ancestral lands they inhabit and benefit from today, further bridging this divide that many students face.  

This brought me to our campus garden and wondering why our seeds were not planted in this ground. That question sparked a movement on campus, and with the help of dozens of people across the academic community, nation members, and students, I led a dedication to returning our seeds to ancestral land that hadn’t grown there in more than 150 years. What was planned to be a small event turned into an opportunity to reconnect with people who haven’t since the start of the pandemic and signified a true land acknowledgement beyond words. 

Since the dedication of the Three Sisters Garden at Syracuse University, two more gardens have been established at SUNY Binghamton and Colgate University using the same model and appropriate seeds with historical significance to the land each inhabits. These gardens have also been featured in several local and national media outlets, transcending the physical space of the garden. Working with academic institutions to incorporate alternative knowledges in curriculum while creating a network of Indigenous scholars, researchers, and activists who can take what they learn and bring it back to their communities is the long-term goal of this project. If we can create space for our youth to succeed, reinforced by our values, we can create a generation capable of innovating and solving critical issues in our communities around health and our foods. 

How can community members be involved and support the cause of restoring and protecting indigenous food systems? 
The easiest way to get started is to begin cultivating this knowledge at home. Learning about the traditional foods of a region and the ways that our people utilize them — through literature or our elders — will begin to ground the intent behind this work. Family and friends who have this knowledge are invaluable and, from my experience, are more willing to share than you think. I learned everything I know from the stories and experiences of other Indigenous people doing this work themselves. What I lacked in experience I made up for in physical labor and by providing an avenue to bring this knowledge to a larger audience through academic relationships. 

Everyone has a gift to share and a place in the community to create impact. For me, it was healing myself through food so that I can begin to heal communities. Along the way I learned how to grow our foods, how to work with intent and reciprocity, and how to create space for storytelling and personal growth for generations to come. While this is just my story, there are many more like it, and many more that haven’t yet started. Our foods are a gift, and we should use them to heal our communities. 

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