Tsimshian farmer's harvest of Ozette potatoes brings hope for greater Indigenous food sovereignty

Tsimshian farmer Jacob Beaton, right, shows off his first harvest of Ozette potatoes at his Tea Creek Farm in Kitwanga, B.C. (Tea Creek Farm/Instagram - image credit)
Tsimshian farmer Jacob Beaton, right, shows off his first harvest of Ozette potatoes at his Tea Creek Farm in Kitwanga, B.C. (Tea Creek Farm/Instagram - image credit)

Jacob Beaton reaped a bounty of potatoes from his farm in northwest B.C. last week — but they aren't the kind of potatoes you'd find at the supermarket.

Tea Creek Farm in Kitwanga had in fact completed its first harvest of Ozette potatoes, which Beaton says are one of the oldest kinds of potatoes that Indigenous people grew in the coastal areas of what is now British Columbia.

Beaton (Dzap'l Gye'a̱win Skiik), a member of the Eagle Clan of the Tsimshian First Nations, says until recently he believed settlers had introduced potatoes directly from Europe.

"I wasn't aware of all the Indigenous foods that were cultivated by farmers in what they called the New World," he said on CBC's Daybreak North.

"It turns out the Haida, Tsimshian [and] Tlingit people all up and down the coast, [and] the Makah people and Coast Salish…were all farming potatoes hundreds of years ago."

Tea Creek Farm/Instagram
Tea Creek Farm/Instagram

Beaton says he learned about the Ozette variety when Gitxaala members from the North Coast came to his farm to learn agriculture and brought some to be cooked with seafood.

Food insecurity

The fingerling Ozette potatoes had been grown and used by the Makah Nation in what is now the northweast tip of Washington state for about 200 years after they were likely brought from South America by Spanish settlers, according to grassroots organization Slow Food Seattle.

As well as their great taste — described as nutty and earthy — these potatoes are also significant in allowing Indigenous communities to regain food sovereignty.

Beaton says he has heard local elders recounting that their parents were great farmers until the colonial government forced them off their farmlands.

Slow Food Seattle
Slow Food Seattle

That led to the loss of crops like the Ozette potato and, more importantly, he says the loss of farming skills due to colonization has led to a disproportionate lack of food security — regular access to safe, nutritious food — among Indigenous people.

A University of Toronto study in 2020 found more than 30 per cent of off-reserve Indigenous people across Canada's 10 provinces experience food insecurity, while those in the territories and reserves were "known to experience high vulnerability to food insecurity."

"That third-world country condition … is completely wrong and it needs to be fixed immediately," Beaton said.

'Culturally significant foods'

Beaton says he got Ozette potato seeds from the Canadian Potato Genetic Resources, a Fredericton-based lab run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, as part of an Indigenous food sovereignty project led by Secwepémc farmer Tiffany Traverse.

Traverse, who operates the Fourth Sister Farm near Dawson Creek in northeast B.C., says the project grows Ozette and another potato variety called Likely, and also involves a farm in Moberly Lake, B.C.

The two varieties were historically grown by Indigenous farmers in what is now B.C.

Tiffany Traverse/Facebook
Tiffany Traverse/Facebook

Traverse, who is now applying for federal funding to finance the project, is hoping more Indigenous farmers across the province can sign up. Those interested can contact her at 4thsisterfarm@gmail.com.

"These are culturally significant foods that a few of our nations have eaten and stewarded for many generations," she said.

Subscribe to Daybreak North on CBC Listen or your favourite podcast app, and connect with CBC Northern British Columbia on FacebookTwitter and Instagram