Lyla June is a musician, public speaker and internationally recognized performance poet of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and Northern European lineages. A young elder with a rare wisdom, Lyla June sprang into the consciousness of many during the Standing Rock movement, when her powerful live feeds drew millions of viewers from around the world. 

Though her art and activism continue to carry forward the messages of Standing Rock, she is now zeroing in on food and agricultural policy with the goal of building food sovereignty and eventually establishing a school to revitalize ancient approaches to farming.

A self-described “indigenous eco-Tubman” set on freeing people from slavery to a destructive and dehumanizing system, Lyla decided earlier this year to pursue a doctorate in traditional food systems and languages – “as a hobby,” she emphasized, as she prefers traditional forms of education. Clearly she’s no stranger to the Western academic model, having graduated from Stanford University and the University of New Mexico with honors – but traditional education is at the heart of her current pursuit. Curious about what this meant to her, I caught up with her at the Sovereign Sisters Gathering in the heart of the sacred Black Hills and asked her to explain.

A version of this story appeared in Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system. This interview is Part One of our visit with Lyla June, and a part of our Women of Standing Rock series. In Part Two, The Farm as Forest, she debunks prevailing scientific theories about Native American civilizations, and shares some surprising findings about the way agriculture was practiced before the colonizers arrived – and what it means for our future.

Water protectors of all persuasions gathered in talking circles at Borderland Ranch in Pe’Sla, the heart of the sacred Black Hills, during the first Sovereign Sisters Gathering. At the center are Cheryl Angel in red and white and on her left, Lyla June. (Photo by Tracy L. Barnett)

A version of this story appeared in Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system. 

The story is part of an Esperanza Project series: Women of Standing Rock. Stay tuned for Part II of our visit with Lyla June: The Forest as Farm, Ancient Foodscapes as Cutting-Edge Regenerative Agriculture.

Tell us about your journey with food sovereignty—how and where were you raised and how did that influence who you are today? 

I am Diné, Cheyenne, Scottish, and Scandinavian—and maybe other things that I don’t know—but my mom is Diné, and we get our clan from our mother’s side. Diné people perfected a mode of existence in the desert where all of their gastronomic needs were fulfilled in a way that regenerated the land around them—everything from managing piñon forests and three sisters crops to maintaining and protecting deer habitat— even buffalo, which we used to eat as far south as our homeland.

So I think that’s where my food journey really started was hundreds of thousands of years ago, on this continent. The scientists say we’ve only been here about 10,000 to 14,000 years. But more evidence is coming up that’s showing our presence here is more like in the hundreds of thousands of years.

Growing up, I was not very connected to my foods, even though my ancestors were. I ate from grocery stores, restaurants, a little bit of fast food… I ate your normal Bureau of Indian Affairs school lunch menu – and it was just trash. They had all of us little native kids—the only thing we could drink was milk at school — [even though] we were all lactose intolerant, genetically.

I had mostly a colonized American diet growing up. And when I was about 27, an elder came and told me that it was time to plant the seeds. It was time to burn around the oak groves again. It was time to transplant the kelp gardens to make room for herring roe and herring spawning grounds. It was time to replant the chestnut forests in the East; space them apart so disease would not wipe them out. It was time to clear the understory of the forests to make room for the deer again. It was time to cultivate corn that might be smaller in size but is more nutrient dense. It was time to harvest the saguaro seeds again from the cacti. It was time to pick berries again. It was time to regenerate the highly sophisticated food systems that we as indigenous peoples cultivated and, through trial and error over many thousands of years, we had perfected.

And he said that when the Europeans came, they were actually the primitive ones. And we had vast societies and we managed the land extensively. And the Europeans didn’t like seeing how sophisticated we were in the face of their society. They felt scared because their whole mission was to conquer an inferior race. And so when they saw our vast societies and huge complex governance structures — pyramids, even — and everyone being fed very well, and the women being treated well, with matrilineal societies — they called the ones in the South the Five Civilized Tribes, as if those five were an exception to the rule that the rest were all primitive. But the truth is, we were all very “civilized” in the sense that we were highly advanced in our functioning.

So, this elder told me a sentence that changed my life forever. He said, “Native people control enough land to change the way the world thinks about food and water.” And so even though our landholdings have been reduced to almost nothing compared to what they used to be, we have enough landholdings where we can — not to do anything new, but just bring back what our ancestors already did — to change the way the world thinks about food and water.

So that’s what sparked my journey into traditional foods revitalization as well as language revitalization — because I believe that until we can speak the language, the paradigm and the lens through which we see reality will not be changed. So I think to truly change our relationship to food we have to change the paradigm by which we live. Even the word “food” is a noun [in English]— it’s an object, it’s static, it’s lifeless, it’s dead. But in our languages, food is always a verb, in the sense that it’s derived from a verb. It’s a noun that’s created into a noun from a verb. This is because for us, food is a dynamic, living process that is constantly in flux.

Lyla June, left, with Cheryl Angel, Sovereign Sisters Gathering, Borderlands Ranch, Black Hills, South Dakota, June 2019 (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

Can you give us an example of how food is dynamic?

As a Native person you are not just thinking about the nut you’re eating; you’re thinking about the ancestors who planted that chestnut tree 60 years ago and did so with ceremony and with song. You’re thinking about how you burned around the chestnut tree to prevent overpopulation of the forest and to return nutrients to the soil and to smudge the trees — it’s a ceremony when you burn around the trees.

When you look at that nut, you’re thinking about the rains that came, and you’re thinking about the mycelium that nourishes and sustains the soil for the chestnut tree. You’re thinking about going out in the forest by the dozens and harvesting chestnuts as a community. You’re thinking about shelling them, you’re thinking about grinding them, you’re thinking about processing them, you’re thinking about mixing them with other foods to create superfood mixtures. You’re thinking about the spirit of that chestnut tree and how she’s like your mother. You’re thinking about how we planted chestnut forests with our bare hands and always spacing them far apart so the disease couldn’t travel through them, to keep them healthy. You’re thinking about the plants that are sisters and brothers to the chestnut that grow around the tree.

But that word “food” [as a noun] isolates that nut from all those living processes. And when I think of the word food, I think of your kid in the back seat and you throw them a bag of Cheetos — it’s just an object that you can put in a bag and eat, and not think about where it comes from. But for us, our language is our verb base, because we acknowledge nothing is static. Everything is in flux, everything transforms, everything is moving from place to place. And the idea that things are static objects is nothing more than a mind trick, an illusion of the mind.

So that’s what sparked my interest in the intersection of food and languages — this yearning to go back to a more sane and sovereign lifestyle — and also this elder who really inspired me to start examining how we could become leaders in the world and sort of set the record straight: We are not the primitive ones — the most primitive thing you can do is poison your own water. And the most barbaric thing you can do is to use this life to dominate instead of love and uplift. And we didn’t do either of those things. We learned through trial and error that those things don’t work. This society is still learning that.

So you chose to investigate this through the academic route. Can you talk a bit about your process of deciding to do that, and where to go and who to study with? 

I am almost half European, so I have both minds. I can view through the ceremonial lens and I can view through the left-brain, academic lens. And I’ve always been good at Western academics; I went to Stanford for my undergrad, graduated with honors; I studied American Indian education at the University of New Mexico for my master’s, and graduated with distinction. And so my entire master’s thesis was all about how Western education is not a priority, and should never be a priority in the education of Native peoples — that we should return to our own ancestral curriculum. Sometimes it’s helpful to express these things through Western language, to help Western peoples understand why we’re not going to send our kids to a private school or a public school or a charter school — why we have to make our own schools again. And you even have to explain that to Native people who have bought into the Western world, who have bought into the idea that Western academics are superior to our epistemologies and our pedagogies.

I have to even talk to my own people through Western language sometimes to get them to believe me. My grandfather was the president of the first tribal college. At that time it was called Navajo Community College; now it’s called Diné College. He was pretty much ousted because he was too Western. He wanted all the students going through to be Americanized, because he had gone to the boarding schools and he had bought into the lie that we are going to be better if we can be more like white Americans. So there’s still a trace of that today, this idea that the less Indian we can be, the better we will be.

So for that reason it’s sometimes helpful to express this through Western language, to the world and to each other. However, it will only ever get us so far. Western academics is not the end of my journey — it’s a hobby, more than anything.

So my PhD I chose to do at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks because they have one of the most cutting-edge indigenous studies doctoral programs in the country. When I get my diploma it will say, “Doctor of Indigenous Studies.” Which is nice, because they talk about re-centering our spiritual ways of knowing, re-centering our spiritual ways of researching, re-centering the worldview that our ancestors lived by, which was holistic, which was affective, or in other words made room for emotions and love and respect. Which was purpose-driven; there was always a goal to help the community within our research, within our knowing. It wasn’t just to figure out the mechanics of nature, it was about creating a life support system for the community, not just the human community but all life.

A lot of my professors are Alaska native elders, and they are brilliant people, and they are very connected to the land because they’ve been colonized later than we have, and just by necessity the isolation of their communities from the rest of the “modern world’ requires them to be more sovereign in their living. They hunt, they fish, they still know their stories, they still know their dances — even though the government tried to stamp it out.

It’s a very wonderful program and it allows you to study in your own community. So I don’t have to live in Alaska to do the coursework; it’s delivered remotely. And even though it’s delivered remotely, it’s very rigorous, and I can feel connected to the professors and the other students; I get to hear their voices and see their faces, and we are truly on a journey together. And the projects of other students are equally mind-blowing — just beautiful things that the other students are doing.

So that’s why I chose the route that I chose. And I want to end this part by saying, my PhD is truly just a side hobby. I never want it to get in front of me being with the land, me learning my culture, me learning my language. It is merely a vehicle through which I can do what I would be doing if I wasn’t getting a PhD. Which is planting the seeds, generating the food systems, apprenticing with elders and learning my own language. Not every university will let you do that — but the University of Alaska does.

Looking forward, what would you say that a revitalized traditional food system would look like, and what would be your part in promoting that?

I think that it depends on your homeland. Every homeland has a unique set of foods that Creator placed there. In the Pacific Northwest, you have herring roe, seal oil, salmon, caribou perhaps, and other edible fruits and nuts and edible greens in the area. In my homeland, we live in the desert, and we also have a few mountains where we can hunt and gather berries and things like that — but we are very integrated into seeds, corn, beans, squash, amaranth — and just the things that sustain us.

Lyla June, Sovereign Sisters Gathering, Borderlands Ranch, Black Hills, South Dakota, June 2019 (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

Were sheep traditionally a part of the system there as well?

Yes — we have indigenous desert sheep, mountain sheep, and then the Spanish brought their sheep, and the churro sheep is when those two intermarried and created their own children. They created the four-horned sheep. So we have very special and unique meat sources.

If you live in the East — maybe Kentucky — it would look like replanting the hickory, chestnut, walnut, acorn forests, and those mosaics that depended a lot on fruits and nuts. It looks like bringing the pawpaw back. It looks like bringing — I think there’s 21 fruit trees that I read about in one study that people would enjoy in the Eastern Appalachian forests.

Such as persimmons. 

Persimmons — so many. So [what a revitalized food system looks like] depends on your biome. However, I do feel a responsibility to my own people — Diné — and I think that I could work most fluently there because I’m an “insider.” I’m allowed to lead there. If I go to other tribal homelands it’s my job to follow the lead of those tribal members. And I can do that; I love following, and a part of me also wants to lead; to be a leader amongst many leaders, where I’m allowed to really co-create projects with my people without feeling that I’m stepping on toes or overstepping my boundaries.

I guess for me it looks like bringing together community members to perform an experiment: how many years does it take for us to re-learn how to get our food locally? How many years does it take for us to become proficient in our language—and because my master’s degree is in education, I know what it’s like to generate our own schools. And I know how creative my people are and how brilliant they are and how much capacity we do have.

So as of now my plan is to go home, to Diné Bikéyah [in New Mexico], and to work with a cohort of people and just teach each other — bring the elders in, create a school. We have a seasonal school that we started for my master’s project and we can continue it, so that every season we’re getting teachings, we’re learning, we’re educating students in our way. And over time, through a curriculum that is improved and honed each cycle — which is the strategy of action research — with action research you perform an action, and then you evaluate how it went, and then you improve it and do the action again. And then you step back and see — how did we do? And you make tweaks and changes and amendments to the curriculum, and then you implement it a third time or a fourth time or a fifth time — however many times you need to in order to really hone in on the curriculum that works.

So this form of action research is inherently grassroots because you involve the community in the process of evaluation and re-creation. And so in this way we can study and see, what is our proficiency? It’s basically a study in the efficacy of a curriculum at the end of the day. Did this curriculum work? Why or why not? And I’m hoping at the end of three years, four years, we will be fluent in our language and in our food system. And we will be operating as a team — which is what we did last time — and we will be able to have a success story that other tribes can look to and model and be inspired by.

And so to me that’s what food sovereignty looks like. It looks like increasing the amount of food we get from the land around us from one percent — which is probably what it is now for some of us — to 80 percent. I think 80 percent is a good objective to shoot for. And fluency — we will know inside if we’re fluent or not. And we can self-evaluate in that regard.

Ultimately, [we will be] creating a school that is more… I want to say, formal and more legitimate, that our children can go to. That teaches them the whole spectrum — because they need to know the traditional ways and they need to know how to speak the colonizer’s language. They need to understand the colonizer’s world view — not so they can embody it, but so they can make peace with it, and challenge it in a way that’s constructive and yields real healing and change.

And so that’s the end goal. Hopefully when I’m in my 50s or something I’ll be part of a group that’s managing a whole school that doesn’t need federal funding, doesn’t need state funding and doesn’t pander to Western curricular standards.

So that’s the big vision. But right now, I’m just apprenticing with elders who know about food. I’ll be spending a month with Rowen White who is a Mohawk seed saver; I’ll be spending a month Loretta Afraid of Bear, who’s a Lakota ceremonial foods expert. And I’ll be spending a month with an elder in Australia who gets all of his food from the land around him, and a month with brothers and sisters in Quebec who are hunters and are really connected to the Arctic food system — just learning from different people, trying to gain an understanding of the core principles that drive all sustainable food systems. And although they look differently in different contexts, finding those core principles.

Some of the things you’re talking about remind me of an agroforestry project I visited recently in Mexico—Via Orgánica, it’s called, and the people there are regenerating a really degraded landscape. I was really impressed with the way that agriculture can actually be more than sustainable, it can be a regenerative and restorative process.

That’s exactly what I’m saying. My friend in Bella Bella, British Columbia — their anthropogenic kelp gardens — in other words, human-made kelp gardens — that sustain the herring roe, which sustains the wolves and the salmon and the killer whales and everything around them — she says she doesn’t like the word “sustainability.” She says, “We don’t just want to sustain ourselves; that’s a low bar. We call it “enhanceability.” We want to have the ability to enhance and leave the land better than how we found it. That’s actually a pillar and a core of everything I’m talking about.

It’s not as hard as you might think. If you have the right action for a couple of seasons — the Earth actually wants to be full of life. That’s it’s nature. We actually have to work to get it to not do that. So if we just get behind her and breathe life into what she’s already doing, it can change pretty fast. But we need the tools and we need the skills and we need the knowledge and most of all the wisdom that supports all of these things.

This story is part of an Esperanza Project series: Women of Standing Rock. Stay tuned for Part II of our visit with Lyla June: The Forest as Farm, Ancient Foodscapes as Cutting-Edge Regenerative Agriculture.

A version of this story appeared in 
Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system.