Standing before Humboldt State’s new Indigenous Food Sovereignty Lab last week, Cody Henrikson told a small crowd that growing up, traditional foods were some of the only native practices he and his family had left after centuries of assimilation and erasure. When Henrikson, who is Denaʼina, Sugpiaq and a member of the Ninilchik Village Tribe of Alaska, moved here to attend Humboldt State University, he lost traditional foods, too.
“I lost those traditional foods and the connection to my culture, and I struggled a lot in my first few years of school. It took me a long time to adjust to this new environment and to become a good student,” Henrikson said. It was thanks to HSU’s Native American Studies Department that Henrickson eventually found his footing, and it is through that department that the idea for an Indigenous food sovereignty lab was born and grew, fueled by Henrikson and his peers.
On Friday last week, supporters gathered at HSU for the lab’s groundbreaking ceremony, located on what students are now calling “Wiyot Plaza,” near the Native American Forum, Goudi’ni Gallery and Behavioral and Social Sciences building. The lab is named “Rou Dalagurr,” which means “everyone works” or “work together.”
“The implementation of programs and spaces like Rou Dalagurr are vital to the well-being and success of Indigenous students,” Henrikson said at the event, which was live-streamed on Facebook. “Not only will this lab directly serve to support Indigenous students, but also the school as a whole, our local tribes, and our community.”
The new lab — with remodeling underway and a goal opening date of fall 2022 — will serve many purposes, all tied to amplifying Indigenous representation and honoring food sovereignty. The lab has partnered with several Indigenous environmental programs and has a steering committee with representation from HSU staff, students and most local tribes.
“We need this. We need to bring back our foods and our traditional foods so we can be healthy again,” said Wiyot Tribe Chairman Ted Hernandez.
Food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,” in the Declaration of Nyéléni, which was the product of the first global gathering for food sovereignty in Nyéléni Village, Mali, in 2007.
“Native foods were specifically targeted during invasion and genocide throughout the 20th century. The criminalization of Indigenous ecological management practices and the commodification of more than human relatives have hampered our ability to produce and access healthy Indigenous foods,” said Kaitlin Reed, an assistant professor in the Native American Studies Department and co-director of the food sovereignty lab.
The interior of the lab will be equipped with a commercial kitchen, plant drying station and area for basketry, art and regalia, and its exterior will include a salmon pit and native plant and food garden. The space will be used for research, studying and university events.
Restoring Indigenous food practices — with their ties to culture, agriculture, geography and ecosystems — are a natural avenue to restoring more.
“When we talk about Indigenous food sovereignty, we are talking about so much more than the cultivation or preparation of foods,” Reed said.
“We are talking about liberating our rivers from dams, we’re talking about bringing fire back to the landscape, we’re talking about bringing our languages back, our ceremonies back, and we’re talking about getting our land back. That is really what is at the core of Indigenous food sovereignty.”
Reed shared a statistic from Kari Norgaard’s book “Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People” that today’s average Karuk family eats less than five pounds of salmon per year, compared to the 400 pounds Karuk people ate per year prior to 1850.
“This is probably one of the largest dietary transformations that have happened in North America,” Reed said. “This lab represents a great stride towards righting that wrong, that injustice that Indigenous peoples experience in their landscapes and in their bodies.”
The idea for the lab arose from a fall 2019 Indigenous Natural Resource Management Practices course taught by Department of Native American Studies Chair and co-director of the lab Cutcha Risling Baldy.
“This was a student dream project that they came up with in a class, that we’ve been working on ever since, and that has now come to fruition, just a short year-and-a-half/almost two years later,” Baldy said.
Two students in that class, Henrikson and Carrie Tully, won second place at the California State University Student Research Competition for a presentation about ways to indigenize Humboldt State’s campus, and the two donated their winnings to the lab.
The team’s first proposal for the space to build the lab was denied, and so students collected more than 100 letters of support and brought an appeal to the University Senate, which resulted in approval for the lab.
Students raised $250,000 for the lab in under a year, Baldy said, with help from more than 200 donors.
“The work [these students] have done over the past couple years are going to benefit Indigenous communities for generations to come,” Reed said. “It’s going to benefit our more than human relatives and it is working towards putting a broken system back into balance.”
Graduate student Carrie Tully, whose daughter accompanied her at the speaker’s podium, also underlined that their efforts to build the lab are for today’s youth.
“I think that all of the students who have worked on this and everybody who has worked on this [are] probably slightly jealous of all of these students who are going to be able to participate in the lab as part of their college education, because we’re not going to get to do that for credit. But we’re so proud and excited to be able to pass on these opportunities to the youth,” Tully said. “This is something that will go on and be shared and grow and develop for generations and generations and generations.”
Rou Dalagurr leaders plan to staff the lab with five interns per year who will have the opportunity to propose and develop their own ideas and projects for the space, which are outlined in their summer 2021 progress report. The team has already dreamt up a number of projects, including food sovereignty youth camps, which would educate elementary, middle and high school youth about food sovereignty, a food sovereignty food guide that would explore Northern California Indigenous gardens and businesses, a documentary about Rou Dalagurr, which is already underway, and an annual springtime Humboldt Native Foods Festival to celebrate local native farmers and producers.
The lab is the first of its kind in the California State University system. “It’s a chance to show how people really see HSU as a place for native students, and native work, and native-facing research,” Baldy said. “We’re leading the way in that, and that’s kind of unprecedented at other universities.”
“The food sovereignty lab is really a wonderful example of our university’s values in action,” said HSU Provost Jenn Capps, who appeared on behalf of President Tom Jackson and HSU’s administration. “This whole space really just activates and embodies everything that HSU is about.”