Feeding People

 

If you live in New Mexico, you have probably gone to at least one feast day at a nearby Pueblo. And if you have gone to one, you have probably gone to many more. They are wonderful events where the Pueblo and its people are blessed for the coming year, with traditional dancing, singing, and drumming. They are open to the public and although the sights and sounds are deeply satisfying, your Pueblo hosts will not let you leave with an empty stomach. They welcome strangers into their homes and seat them at a table heavy with bowls of red and green chile stew, beans, posole, potato salad, baskets of bread, plates of cakes, brownies…I can’t go on! My mouth is watering as I write. See my previous post for more on Pueblo dances  http://lucymoore.com/always-was-and-always-will-be/

It is a really awesome thing, to be welcomed into a home and fed. There is a bond between you and your host(ess) and the others eating with you that is like none other. As a facilitator I have come to appreciate the role of food in resolving conflict. Sharing a meal, or even a snack, offers a chance to relax, be nourished, and build a relationship with that person who might look like an adversary on the other side of the negotiating table. It is also a leveler. Lawyers, scientists, community members, tribal leaders, elected officials, cooks and janitors are all equal at mealtime.

And so it is a major frustration for me that federal agencies with whom I often work are not allowed by law to buy food for anyone outside the agency. This has led to such absurd situations as federally sponsored community meetings held from 5:00 to 8:00 pm on a weeknight, where the attendees might have to drive an hour or more and then arrive to find not so much as a cookie and bottle of water waiting for them. This drives me crazy. If I am facilitating, I bring plentiful snacks myself – fruit, vegetables, crackers, cheese, trail mix, juice, coffee, and yes, cookies, lots of cookies. I am not about to try to facilitate an angry crowd that is also a hungry crowd.

Over the years I have worked with the Forest Service as they revise their forest plans. Here in Region 3 (New Mexico and Arizona) there have been dozens of community meetings, public forums, tribal summits on all kinds of topics. I have consulted on some projects and facilitated others, bringing snacks when needed. Forest staff and I have talked at length about building strong partnerships with other jurisdictions – local government, private landowners, other federal agencies and tribes – in order to maximize the impact of land improvements on Forest Service land. I have emphasized the importance of honesty, clarity, and a personal relationship based on mutual caring. They have been willing students, and have implemented the ideas as best they can, within the limits of the law.

Recently, Region 3 Forest Service staff invited me to a tribal summit in Albuquerque to offer my observations on their relationship with tribes.  Over thirty tribes were represented by about fifty leaders and staff. They sat politely and listened to a series of Forest Service presentations on a wide variety of subjects – wildfires, endangered species, forest thinning, pest management, recreation, and more. There was a question or two after each presentation. The atmosphere was a little formal, a bit restrained. Everyone is going through motions, I thought.

And then the Forest Service chief announced it was time for lunch. Tribal members gathered their things and prepared to leave the building, get in cars and drive to Wendy’s or McDonald’s or wherever. They knew from experience that the feds don’t feed people, by law. A fact of life. The reality of working with the federal government.

But when they turned around, what did they see? A line of Forest Service employees coming into the room with dishes, platters, bowls and baskets, heaped with food they had made themselves. There was a huge pan of enchiladas and one of lasagna, a bowl of red chile and one of spaghetti. A man had made spanakopita and stuffed grape leaves in honor of his homeland. A woman had fried chicken as her grandmother had taught her. Another brought a vegetable tofu stir fry, and another a turkey meatloaf. There were endless salads and desserts, all brought by Forest Service staff in a gesture of hospitality to tribal neighbors. They were saying, with this abundance of food, thank you for the hospitality you show us every year. But more importantly, they were saying we understand that a solid, trusting relationship includes sharing food, and not even our employer, the federal government, can stop us from making that happen.

The look of surprise on the tribal faces said it all. Jaws dropped.  They set down their briefcases and their jackets, and headed to the long tables in the back of the room, now heavy with lunch. The mood was light, the room filled with chatter, as people exchanged stories, often finding unexpected common ground. And when the paper plates and plastic ware were deposited in the trash cans, and the leftovers covered in aluminum foil and the Tupperware snapped back in place, everyone made their way back to the front of the room. The presentations continued, but I swear there was a palpable shift from the morning. There was an openness, a relaxation, a feeling of camaraderie between the podium and the audience. All that good food and the spirit with which it was offered had made the difference.

10 thoughts on “Feeding People”

  1. What a great story!! I was thinking as I started reading your blog, “Why don’t the government employees bring food themselves, even if there is no budget?” Because, of course, when we go to Feast Days the food isn’t purchased by the Tribe but by the families who invite us into their homes. That’s what makes it so generous. And then – viola! -the food appeared from the Forest Service employees. I think they finally got it – and I believe it did change the relationship. Hurrah for them!! And, hurrah for you because I know that your talks with the Forest Service may not have been about buying lunch, but I know that you conveyed the importance of understanding each other as we try to resolve our conflicts, and of breaking down barriers to that understanding, and they got the message: breaking bread together can make us all more humane.

    1. You remind me that when I saw them bringing in their dishes from home I was at first amazed, and then very quickly it seemed so natural, so normal and so human. They were simply feeding their guests. They just set aside the barrier of being a federal employee and went “rogue”!

  2. Being Italian and a foodie, I couldn’t agree more with the premise. It is one of the reasons that I bring cookies or donuts to mediation sessions. Donuts for morning cases and cookies for afternoon cases. When working in the Philippines, the serving of food, regardless how poor the village was, was the custom. One of our team quipped as we entered a new village, “another chicken dies”. It is amazing how many people they can serve with one chicken.

    1. Great story about the Philippines — very funny. My son is working there with USAID and loves visiting villages. Says the same thing.

  3. Now why does that remind me of the Peace Meal between Leban and Jacob? Breaking bread is as old as Abraham is it not?

  4. Native values on hospitality do run deeply and has reciprocity included also. Being offered a meal, however simple or lavish, is a true symbol of trust-building and beginning relationships that can be lifelong. Becoming “civilized” has brought with it some expectations of being non-community and nuclear. But, then again, some tribal communities continue ways that remind Natives that sharing and trust go hand-in-hand. Thank you for your insights, Lucy.

    1. So good to hear from you, Ray, and well said. I will remember “sharing and trust go hand-in-hand.” Very powerful. And in Alaska villages, I’m sure the meals are generous…although maybe no mutton stew and fry bread (my personal favorite, as you know.)

  5. Love this! Every time I facilitate a meeting for the corps I have this discussion about the need for project leaders to bring something for those that come.

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