The I-Collective, an organization that is working to create a new narrative about historical contributions of Indigenous peoples, and promote the community’s resilience and innovations in gastronomy, hosted a two-part series on ethical wildcrafting. The conversation focused essentially on the ethics of foraging, as well as decolonizing the way that we, as humans, interact with mother earth. 

The series was hosted by Neftali Duran, a chef and advocate in the community. Linda Black Elk, an ethnobotanist, and M. Karlos Baca, the co-founder of the I-Collective, participated in the first panel discussion. 

Both Black Elk and Baca learned about wildcrafting through their grandparents, and believe in a strongly spiritual approach. “For me, that’s first, even more than physical nourishment,” Black Elk said. “We have to realize that these plants don’t just feed us physically, but spiritually.” For her, plants are sentient beings, who speak and know her relatives. Believing that live things can only feel if they have a central nervous system is narrow, she says, adding that plants should be treated with the same reverence that we treat animals. 

Neftali Duran shows off some foraged goods. Screenshot taken from Part 2 of Ethical Wildcrafting.

The group struggles with the desire to help and educate, while still protecting traditions and keeping knowledge with those it belongs to. For Baca, the infinite Indigenous knowledge of plants and foraging belongs with the Indigenous community. White men and white women are like little brothers and sisters, he says. “You only give them information that they can handle in an honorable way, because throughout history they’ve proven to us that they can’t,” Baca said. A recent example of this irresponsible use of information happened when people came onto reservations and over-harvested sage, which is known for its antibacterial and anti-viral properties, as a response to the  COVID-19 crisis. In this circumstance, rosemary is just as effective, Black Elk says. 

At the same time, Black Elk argued, “If non-Indigenous people can go around knowing plants are relatives, people are way less likely to exploit.” Duran mentioned an idea to legally protect aspects of indigenous foodways, similar to the way that Italy and France have strict rules as to where and how foods can be produced. Black Elk agreed, adding examples of the how the white bean, originally a bean of the Mandan tribe, is now one of the world’s most commonly used legumes without any profit or credit given to the tribe themselves. 

Chef Karlos Baca gathers ingredients in Southern Ute territory in southwestern Colorado.

In part two of the series, Baca and Black Elk were joined by Twila Cassadore, who has worked for over thirty years to record the knowledge of her elders. The group continued their discussion of the ethics of wildcrafting, taking questions from viewers. When asked if the commodification of indigenous plants and knowledge could possibly help return land to the people, Baca was doubtful.

“Capitalism is probably not the answer,” he said, adding that these frameworks don’t exist in Indigenous communities and will be more likely to continue oppression. 

The topic of Indigenous people who want to return to their communities after not having been a part of them previously was also raised. Duran said that this is a delicate subject, and that those who are considering it would need to humbly go to their community and ask them before making decisions. 

Linda Black Elk spoke during the seminar. Screenshot taken from Part 1 of Ethical Wildcrafting.

Language is vastly important and terms like permaculture and rewilding were brought up as problematic. Black Elk flagged the word “wild” implies that humans don’t have a relationship with the land and “rewilding” as a social media movement has proven harmful to Indigenous communities. Baca described permaculture as a way that white men have gone into Indigenous communities under the guise of anthropology, given that knowledge a fancy name, and selling the information back to other white people. By dismantling the nuances of oppressive language, we can create space for imagining a collective future that acknowledges the contributions of all.

Those who are interested in supporting the work of the I-Collective or watching the recorded seminars can do so via their Facebook page.