This Indigenous Scholar Says Veganism Is More Than a Lifestyle for White People

Dalhousie professor Margaret Robinson is living proof that Indigenous culture and veganism share some common ground.

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Mar 27 2018, 6:33pm

Photo courtesy Margaret Robinson

No longer a niche lifestyle choice, veganism has secured itself in the mainstream, but many folks still see veganism as a lifestyle for white people. So what gives? In 2018 does mainstream veganism not appeal to minorities, or are non-whites just underrepresented in the community?

In search of some diversity in the vegan community, I stumbled upon a talk given by Dr. Margaret Robinson, an Indigenous vegan and professor of Indigenous Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During her talk, Margaret shared how her views on veganism come from values and philosophies rooted in her Mi’kmaw culture. She spoke with VICE about her experience as a culturally-connected vegan.

VICE: When you told people you were vegan, were they like, ‘why’?
Margaret Robinson: In my Indigenous culture, we’ve got a culture of non-interference—there’s a value that you’re not supposed to challenge people in their behaviour. You model behaviour that you want to see other people adopt, rather than telling people when they’re doing something wrong. I think partly because of the non-interference value I haven’t had too many problems from folks about it.

I read that in Mi’kmaw culture, animals are called to sacrifice themselves to be eaten. Can you elaborate?
The Mi’kmaw belief is that animals sacrifice themselves so that people can eat them, and they have to consent to be hunted. The animals are essentially so wiley that if they didn’t allow you to catch them, you’d never catch them. I think a part of that [belief] is that we don’t really have a particularly high estimation of human abilities; we tend to see humans as dependent, especially when compared to other animals. So yeah, Mi’kmaw culture has tended to see animals as volunteering themselves to be eaten, and you see that in our stories.

Do you ever sum up your philosophy at the dinner table as not asking for animals to sacrifice themselves for you?
I don’t really get challenged on it. I talk to my partner about veganism and what are the values and philosophies grounding our practices, and for me it connects up with Indigeniety.

Can veganism help someone reconnect with his or her culture?
There are a lot of ways to connect to your Indigenous culture. For me, I think it was a way to help me connect with the values and philosophy of the Mi’kmaw nation—not necessarily with our traditions or our cultural practices. There’s the common sense in my community that we have a responsibility to protect the water, the air, the soil, the plants and the animals and I think we have that in common with veganism. If someone is looking to connect with their culture and they happen to be vegan, these are the ways in which that segue to connect with Indigenous values is not going to be that dramatically different for them. If they already feel a responsibility to protect the environment, if they already see animals as someone, not something, than that’s going to make the transition really smooth.

Do you see veganism as a form of cultural resistance?
Yes and no. Anything that keeps us separated or keeps us able to see the Western tendency to treat living things as if they are objects that we can use and dispose of is always a good thing in terms of resisting colonialism. And I think yes in that the distinction [of animals] being some one not some thing, that goes back to Mi’kmaw views of animals, and I’m sure that’s the case with other Indigenous nations as well. But also no, because it’s still really easy to make terrible choices, even when you’re vegan. The avocado that I like so much has probably been picked by someone who has been economically, socially, and politically oppressed—possibly another Indigenous person. So I think yes and no—colonialism has so many claws in us, it’s difficult to completely separate from them.

Are there any philosophical parallels between Mi’kmaw culture and veganism?
I think one parallel is the value of subsistence. For instance, in Mi’kmaw culture, you’re not supposed to kill more animals than you need to actually stay alive. Hoarding, for instance, accumulating a whole bunch of food in your freezer is not really done. So even people who hunt, if you hunt a moose, in my culture, you’re supposed to share that moose with people in the community who need food. Even though the practice of hunting and killing a moose is clearly not a vegan activity, I think the focus of not taking more than you need—that subsistence value—is very amenable. It parallels in some ways with the kind of values that I see in vegan communities around respect for animals and around being honest about what we need and what we don’t need. I think that because of that kind of respect for animals and ecosystems, there are ways in which indigenous values overlap with veganism, and I think that can be really politically productive in a lot of ways.

I sort of feel like sometimes people have presented Indigenous folks and vegans as if they’re like this natural set of enemies, when in reality I think we have a lot of values in common, even if we’re not expressing them in the same practices.

Have you inspired other Indigenous people to become vegan?
No, I don’t really feel there’s any kind of domino effect of Indigenous people becoming vegan, but I do think Indigenous people are thinking about their food choices and how other choices connect up with their own Indigenous values. I think everyone goes through that self-reflection, especially if you’re engaging with your culture in any particular way, or if you’re trying to decolonize psychologically or trying to reclaim your culture. People have to figure out how they will live as an Indigenous person, and what that’s going to look like. I think everyone has that thought process they go through—it might not lead them to veganism, but it might lead them to something on a similar path. I do talk about what I do, and I write about the things I do, but I’m not out with a sign trying to get people to stop eating factory farmed meat or things like that. If they wanted the information, it’s already accessible.

Do you think Indigenous vegans should have their own label separate from other vegans?
I don’t think there are enough of us to justify having its own label. I only know three others, so I’m not really sure we’ve got the critical mass to carry a label. I’d want a couple more shoulders helping carry that.

What about your cooking? Has it inspired anyone?
I do tend to bring to bring vegan food to events but I don’t tend to tell people it’s vegan food…You can definitely sway stomachs before you can sway minds (laughs).

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