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Chef Nephi Craig spoke at the Native Nutrition Conference, convening this week in Prior Lake, Minnesota. He talked about the practice of decolonization, unraveling the knot of colonization that is in our hearts, and using our own personal journeys to help others. The following is a lightly edited transcription of his remarks.

It's been quite a journey, to be here with this big gathering of professionals, community members, and people that believe in the power of Indigenous foods. To have you all in one room is very, very validating and very powerful. I want to say thank you, all. I’m really happy to be here.

I come from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. My mother's name is Mariddie Craig. Her clan is from Cibeque, part of our reservation. Basically Cibeque translates into ‘they paint their moccasins yellow,’ and it's categorized as the Butterfly Clan. My late father is named Vincent Craig. He was a singer and songwriter. He created the first Navajo superhero, Mutton Man: He was faster than the BIA, able to leap Ship Rock in a single bound, and he was a fighter for freedom and justice in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He was kind of a renaissance man on the rez. I grew up seeing my dad speaking in front of large groups like this. And so in a strong and powerful way, I'm very proud to be here, because I'm here with my son, Ari Craig. So we're kind of carrying on that tradition of using our stories to enhance our perspective as people, because we are up against a social phenomenon that is continually causing perpetual grief in our communities. And that phenomenon is the theme of colonialism. 

Here's what my abstract says–I want to read it so I can remind myself. It says: I'm going to use my personal journey as a tool to situate Indigenous perspectives on self-care, decoloniality, cultural resurgence and behavioral health. I aim to strengthen and enhance our self-perceptions as practitioners in the work that we do, because there's a lot of heavy work that we're involved in, even if we're just farmers, just cooks, just custodians, whatever level of practitioner we are. When we're involved with native foods, we come in contact with so many different realms and things. 

I feel like a big part of what I like to do is be open and transparent about my journey, because that's the most powerful tool that I have. And the same is true for you. I really would like to help contribute to the social efforts to destigmatize mental health, to destigmatize concepts and themes like suicide, addiction, even some of the shaming nature that contributes to preventable food-related diseases, as we think of health disparities that have resulted from centuries of colonial life.

A lot of the -isms in our community are manifestations of colonial violence. For me, in my journey, I've kind of seen and come to realize how that has produced different physical outcomes. 

The main thing is that my story involves addiction and recovery. My journey to sobriety has been an up and down roller coaster ride. And I feel like it's very important to talk about recovery in all of our work, because we are all in recovery as well–recovery does not mean talking about drugs and alcohol. We're talking about recovery from incarceration and recovery from violence; recovery from a recent diagnosis through recovery from loss; there's a lot of different realms of how we are in recovery. And us as health practitioners, or people that are in the field of working with native foods, we are right at the very, very close core of recovery from historical trauma, because we are looking within ourselves to validate our own experiences as we create new pathways forward. I feel like that's how things are connected. 

No matter what work that you do, know that your perspective is valid. Look at the work that you do through an anthropological lens. But also be aware of how the field of anthropology has been damaging to Natives. This will help you to situate your own set of ethics you choose to abide by. It will help you to choose and select the principles you want to operate according to. 

Because when you look at your work, no matter what it is, you, as an Indigenous person, represent the truths that survive against genocide, against centuries of colonial violence. We represent the truth, because we're still here, we're still creative, intelligent, powerful, and humble in the work that we do. 

When you can look at it, in that way, what you are doing in your community might not have happened ever before. Therefore, it's an anthropological occurrence. And your voice as an Indigenous practitioner is valid. It is extremely powerful. It has the potential to make it into history books, to journals, to curriculum, and programming. 

I want to offer that to you because it's really helped me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. They were there to weather their own issues. My father was great. When he passed on, he passed on sober 24 years. I got sober when I was 32. And this legacy, where we can all look at ourselves as cycle breakers, because each one of them, each one of the social ills, or health disparities, that we address, we are all in recovery once we make those changes. 

And so my path is I've been really fortunate to be able to travel. I took native foods and was able to cook in London, and Germany, and Japan and Brazil. And all along the way, I always feel like I'm outside of a culture. I always feel like I didn't really necessarily fit. And so as I got deeper and deeper into the work, it was following the foods that brought me to the doorstep of decolonization. 

The doorstep of decolonization. It's a threshold. In our previous group this morning, we talked about how decolonization sounds very attractive, and it pulls in certain people who gravitate toward it. And some people stand outside the doorway, and talk about it, and do it for show and tell, right? 

But decolonization is actually a practice. You have to walk through that threshold to really begin to live it out. And sometimes we realize that living it out is harder than just talking about it. So, in my opinion, based on my lived experience with my own sobriety and recovery, and all of the different realms that I've been able to traverse through, it seems like public health and decolonization have very similar core principles in line with recovery and sobriety culture.

I feel like it's a really neat way to tell this story and share a part of my life. I've evolved into a clinician. I'm a behavioral health tech and the work that I do, I've got certified as an advanced relapse prevention specialist, and being able to weave an approach to recovery work that involves food, it's been one of the most amazing times, amazing opportunities for me, the work that we do.

It centers around allowing people to connect, not just people in active addiction, but also people that are suffering from intergenerational grief. So many of the principles of recovery and health are the same. And so, talking about cultural resurgence, making it fun, making it appealing, making it applicable in different scenarios, whenever we're doing that, we're always going back to core principles: love, respect, humility, integrity, honesty, compassion, Indigeneity. That's what we have in common are those core sets of principles.

I would like to just say that whatever the work you're doing, it's valid. Sometimes we get so deep in it, that we get exhausted, and it's emotionally taxing. And we feel like the issues are so big and so many, but don't give up the fight, because we are setting a foundation for the next 25 years.

In our class today, we talked about the population shift, how by 2030 in the American Southwest, minorities are going to be the majority. And then in 2050, the minority is going to be the majority across America. And that's going to call for a change, because of demand in the legal system, in the institutional education system, and public health and nutrition. Right now is that time to situate your perspective that what you're doing has the potential to last 20 years. Because we are actually right in that process of creating the foundation for others to stand.

And to me in my personal journey, I'm a dad first, a community member of rez, that guy from wherever he likes to skateboard and listen to hip hop and punk rock music. I try not to let my chef’s coat determine who I am. My chef’s coat is just one of the hats that I wear. It's not my identity.

I'm coming from White River, Arizona, we're three and a half hours northeast of Phoenix. And as I was a young cook, traveling and cooking and training, I used to feel like because I was from the rez, there I had X, Y, and Z more and more rez cred, right. But as I've gotten older, and I've gotten deeper into the work and understanding behavioral health themes and concepts of recovery and different understanding of learning at a basic level, some of these treatment modalities, I understand I've departed from that way of thinking. 

I think a lot of times, we have a tendency to put Indigeneity on a scale and say we have it harder on the rez than they do in the city, right? 

And so I want to encourage you, to maybe share or plant a seed of a message, that that's not true. There is no scale when it comes to rez cred or street cred. Urban natives versus rez.

No matter where we are, when we build and create and establish a set of principles, we will realize that equalizes us. And if we can recognize this cultural phenomenon of colonialism.

If colonization was the act of violence, that was a 500-600 year process and it's still ongoing right now, then the impact of the effect of the manifestation is colonial-ism. Look at it like alcohol-ism. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could somehow get colonialism into the DSM-5? You know what I mean? Isn’t it a disorder? Isn't it progressive, its symptoms potentially fatal? Yes, yes, yes. Because we do embody themes of colonial life. The whole process and understanding what decolonization is, is that we detach from those themes, and we find a new journey. So when I say destigmatizing mental health, destigmatizing suicidality, destigmatizing trauma, and behavioral health, that is a very important thing, because we're not just talking about super, extra vulnerable people. We're talking about people that are living with this experience of trauma. We're talking about people that are just like us, and this human experience that we're all dealing with that responds to colonialism in a different way. 

For some people it’s instability, or prison, or addiction, or early death. For some people, it's a stressor, they're living with it on a regular basis. For some people who are in denial they don't even know it exists, right? So there's different layers and levels to how we can be called. And I feel like it's really important to understand and develop a set of ethics and practices so we can move forward, because they do our best to meet us, to meet each other where we're at. And as I talk about these themes, they're kind of weaving in and out of the clinical, the cultural, the rez and my experience. 

And, like, that's kind of what I tried to do in my work: understanding that our voices as individuals are requested as practitioners, as fathers, as parents, is valid, it has power because we represent the truth. 

And so I wanted to encourage you and validate your struggle. I'd like to encourage you to use your story to impact someone else. Because we never know how and when someone needs to hear what we have to offer. 

I'll begin to conclude with this: That our legacy of colonization in North and South America or in the Americas, is widespread. In South America, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, North America, Canada and Alaska. This colonization monster is a shapeshifter. So it's up to us to broaden our perspectives and be able to identify how we're embodying some of those themes, how we're manifesting them, and how it's manifesting in our loved ones. Because incarceration is a manifestation of colonial violence, right? 

Access to care, or no access to care, the rigid structures around the funding and resources. It's all financial violence. So being able to understand this, this reality that we've inherited, is like a big knot that's all wound up in our hearts, collectively. And a lot of times what happens when you try to untie a string that's really tied in the knot, it's hard, and you don't want to do it, and you might just want to put it away, or cut another piece. But when we take the time to unravel this knot, and we realize that we're putting the effort in, what we end up with, is this long legacy that is a metaphor for strength and power in truth. 

You unravel this knot that's within your heart. And you end up with this long lifeline, this long, unbreakable story of what we were once ashamed of, is now a lifeline to throw to people, to help bring them up and to help pull us out of things. What we used to be ashamed of and run from is now our foundation. I want to offer that to you. Look at your own story, your own trauma narrative in your own health care as a very, very valid tool, and an example of our shared resilience. 

I want to thank you very, very much for entrusting me with the privilege of being able to talk and share and communicate a message. And I want to really kind of stress to keep it real. Don't take it too serious, right? It's serious work. But don't take it too serious, because we're going to tease you, right? We're gonna get you, we're gonna see you if you're taking it too serious, chill out and have fun, but have a really solid approach to the work. 

We're close to the diabetes, obesity, heart disease, incarceration nation, we're right close to the problems kind of pull back once in a while. That is true. That is true, we should take care of ourselves, we should maintain our mental health. But because we're also close to the problem with the food word, we're also very close to the solution. 

I want to offer this as a parting seed: that I feel like we're very lucky to be in the realm of food and nutrition, especially in Indigenous foodways, because our reality, our paradigm, everything is personified. Everything has a lesson to teach. And so many of our food practices from the weaving, the arts, the crafts, fishing, the hunting the stories, they are colored by personification, and they are all behavioral. And if you think about prescriptions and modalities, a biggest pathway to change is behavior changes. So when we leverage traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge, we can really create more pathways forward. 

Thank you all and thank you for letting me talk. 

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