Symposium keynote will look to Indigenous philosophies as a recipe to living well

Mariaelena Huambachano sits and works in a New Zealand garden

Mariaelena Huambachano has spent her life crossing cultures: Of Quechua lineage, she was born and raised in Chorillos, Peru, and, at 19, immigrated to Aotearoa New Zealand. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees to give voice to Indigenous ways of being in Western academia.

On April 14, the assistant professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology presents the keynote address at the 16th Global Health Symposium. Huambachano will deliver her lecture, “Resistance and Resilience: Indigenous philosophies of collective-being as a recipe to living well,” from New Zealand, where she is reconnecting with Māori leaders, elders, academics and others working toward revitalizing traditional food systems. She will explore how Indigenous good-living philosophies can help address pressing global concerns, from climate change to food security.

(Read more: 2021 Global Health Symposium connects Indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge)

“I am looking for recognition of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, especially in addressing global issues such as climate change and the current global food crisis,” she says.

“Indigenous people are the knowledge holders of biodiversity preservation, environmental health and how to produce food in a sustainable way without compromising the natural resources for generations or the well-being of humanity.”—Mariaelena Huambachano

The UW-Madison Global Health Institute and the Native American Center for Health Professions are hosting the symposium to explore the intersection of traditional practices that advance well-being and academic research, education and outreach projects that also promote health. This year’s symposium, “Fostering Resilience Through Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge,” brings together presenters from Wisconsin’s Native Nations, communities impacted by disparities and the university to showcase the complexities of health challenges and the many kinds of expertise needed to address them. The symposium also received funding through an Our Shared Future Heritage Marker Educational Innovation Grant.

The symposium begins at 11 a.m. (CST) Wednesday, April 14, and continues throughout the day. (Learn more) The agenda also includes virtual poster presentations and two panel discussions.

  • Danielle Yancey, M.S., director of the Native American Center for Health Professions, will moderate “Indigenous Knowledge, Wisdom & Resilience: Perspectives from Wisconsin’s Native Nations.”
  • Janis Tupesis, M.D., an emergency physician and GHI associate director, will moderate “On the Front Line for COVID: What We Learned.”

Huambachano finds a way forward in knowledge created over centuries

Huambachano’s research is part of a global movement to recognize, empower and celebrate work to advance Indigenous goals, including food sovereignty. It is part of the growing field of agroecology that looks for ways to address the increasing demand for food yet preserve the natural world, often through Indigenous practices.

In New Zealand, she has been lecturing, working on a book and helping in the food garden at Papatūānuku Kokiri Marae, a self-sustainable urban marae (communal space) in the heart of Auckland City. “I am working on the land and growing beautiful Kūmara (sweet potatoes), a sacred crop of Maori, vegetables and fruits,” she says.

Huambachano’s book, “Recovering Our Ancestors’ Foodways: Indigenous Traditions as a Recipe for Living Well,” will be published with the University of California Press.

With increasingly industrialized world food production, Huambachano sees less nutritious food that negatively impacts traditional food systems, health and well-being of not only Indigenous peoples but of all humanity. “We’ve lost touch with our senses and being able to connect with the land and what’s happening withinin our environment and across other communities—plant, animal, forest, human,” Huambachano says. “Everything is interrelated. If you disrupt one, you disrupt the others.”

Four workers in a garden with palm trees and other crops
Mariaelena Huambachano, second from left, works with Indigenous people to reclaim their food sovreignty. (Photo courtesy of Huambachano.)

Water pollution, for example, leads to unhealthy fish and the loss of biodiversity. Animal lives and the spiritual beings in the water are interrupted, she says, and the cultural, physical and spiritual well-being of those who rely on the fish are also disrupted. Communities lose cultural knowledge, including principles of generosity and sustainability that are learned when they harvest food sustainably and care for the land and the non-human communities.

“If we are willing to listen to someone’s knowledge systems as an alternative for addressing the environmental crisis, then we can together find the solution.”—Mariaelena Huambachano

Indigenous people rely on the health of the land to create healthy food, Huambachano says. More than just something to eat, food has a spiritual value and a history that resonate throughout communities. “Grabbing a meal at the grocery store is far different than growing and eating your own traditional foods,” she says. “It doesn’t have the cultural, health and spiritual value I need to live a healthy life, especially emotionally.”

A delegate and associate researcher in the Academic Network of the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous People’s Issues, Huambachano applauds the U.N.’s recognition that agroecology can contribute to enhanced food security and better nutrition while encouraging sustainable practices that can be found in Indigenous food systems.

“We all have a place and a say for preserving a sustainable future,” Huambachano says. “Maybe we agree to disagree, but if we are willing to listen to someone’s knowledge systems as an alternative for addressing the environmental crisis, then we can together find the solution.”

Registration is open for the symposium.

If you need accommodation to participate in this virtual event, please email or call 608-265-9299. All accommodation requests should be made no less than two weeks before the event. We will attempt to fulfill requests made after this date but cannot guarantee they will be met.


By Ann Grauvogl/ March 10, 2021