A Netflix Doc Wants to Fix Our Food System With Capitalism. “Gather” Argues That’s How It Broke.

Two new films about tending the earth offer very different worldviews.

Apache forager Twila Cassadore.Courtesy Gather

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Early on in Gather, a new documentary about Native Americans searching for food sovereignty, we follow Nephi Craig on a tour of a former gas station on the White Mountain Apache Nation in eastern Arizona. Craig, a White Mountain Apache/Navajo chef, points to an empty refrigerated case once stocked with energy drinks and packaged snacks. It will soon be full of fresh produce from the farm outside, he explains. The Coke machine on a nearby counter will make way for a cooking fire.

Craig was once trained as a classical French chef, but the journey “was shadowed by chemical dependency,” addictions to drugs and alcohol. When he “crash-landed” back on the Rez, he began to explore the universe of Native ingredients­–agave, amaranth, squash, Anasazi beans. “That was one of the things that helped me get clean.”

It also changed his sense of purpose in the kitchen. Atop the bones of the former gas station, he’s now building a new kind of fueling station: Café Gozhóó, a restaurant designed to “nourish and celebrate our Ancestral Intelligence through fresh and local Western Apache cooking,” its menu states, and a professional training ground for people in recovery to learn Indigenous cooking techniques. During the film, local forager Twila Cassadore pushes Craig to expand his palate, including by offering him a sample of a traditional Apache protein, boiled pack rat.

Craig had to postpone the restaurant’s planned opening in the spring due to the coronavirus, which as of November has infected a fifth of the tribe. But when he finally opens its doors to the public, he envisions Café Gozhóó (the Apache word for harmony/beauty) helping those in the surrounding community break out of their food desert and its accompanying ills, such as high rates of diabetes.

“When you have food sovereignty, you’re free to be self-reliant, to grow your own food, to choose the foods you want to eat, to choose the foods you want to put in school systems, and really be self-sustaining,” Craig explains. “Our reservations across the United States are far away from being actually food sovereign.”

Gather, a beautifully shot film directed by Sanjay Rawal (Food Chains, Why We Run), traces three efforts by Native Americans to reclaim their ancestral foodways. These are not sentimental exercises, as Craig indicates. Food sovereignty is an act of resistance, a struggle against an agricultural production regime with violence at its root. Gather never loses sight of the struggle or the violence, unlike its autumnal counterpart and accidental counterpoint, Netflix’s celebrity-packed Kiss the Ground. Both documentaries raise questions about our food system, only from different perspectives and with different priorities. They make for a useful pair, with Gather showing what’s hiding in the white spaces of Kiss the Ground.

The struggle to recover their hunting and farming systems presents special challenges for Native Americans, because for hundreds of years, they’ve been blocked from doing so by a vicious campaign of colonial greed. European settlers obliterated their food supplies as a way of controlling them.

“North America, Turtle Island, was colonized for its topsoil,” Rawal explained to me during a conversation earlier this month, citing books like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee throughout our conversation. By the mid-eighteenth century, colonial farmers had cultivated the East Coast to the point where soils were being rapidly depleted, and they wanted to move west of the Appalachian Mountains. But the British King George III forbade them with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which identified land west of the Appalachians as Indian Reserve (some historians point to the proclamation as the real driver of the Revolutionary War).

Huge land grabs by presidents Thomas Jefferson and later Andrew Jackson pushed that line further and further west, kicking tribes off rich farmland and resettling them onto reservations. As Natives in the Great Plains were forced onto shabbier soil, they increasingly depended on bison to survive. When the railroad companies plotted supply chains going east to west, the buffalo and their migratory hunters “were a complete anathema to that,” Rawal says. Political leaders looked the other way or encouraged settlers to “Kill every buffalo you can!” as one colonel reportedly put it, “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

In a letter to Major-General Phillip Sheridan on May 10, 1868, General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote that so long as buffalo roamed Nebraska, “Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all.” A mass of beasts 30 to 60 million strong shrank to a few hundred by the end of the 19th century. The government later doled out canned chicken and powdered milk to the decimated tribes as a pitiful substitution.

Amid the mixed-grass prairie of South Dakota, Fred DuBray, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and another one of Gather’s subjects, is trying to bring the buffalo back by raising the animals on his ranch. “A lot of non-Indian people can understand the need to do that, and the good it can do for the land,” DuBray says. “Whereas they don’t understand the need to bring the culture back,” he adds. “We were almost wiped out, too. And we need to kind of grow back together. We can help each other.” Conservationists recognize the animal’s role in the ecosystem—they increase biodiversity, and their dust-wallowing habits help with seed dispersal and water retention, for instance.

The science doesn’t stop there. DuBray’s daughter Elsie, a high schooler when Gather was filmed, theorizes that the bison meat her family raises and harvests offers more nutrients—a higher proportion of healthy fats, and fewer saturated fats—than its more popular counterpart, beef. She’s out to prove it; the film’s most suspenseful plotline traces her journey to a regional science fair, where her analysis of bison and beef lipids is scrutinized by a panel of judges. (Elsie’s now at Stanford, where she continues to research Indigenous diets as a biology major.)

Gather, which was co-produced by the nonprofit First Nations Development Institute, does not pretend to take a comprehensive look at the fight for better access to fresh food in Native communities across the country; rather, Rawal shapes the film around three portraits. It avoids lengthy testimonies by university scholars and legal experts, instead leaning on its main subjects to fill in the needed context. “It was important for us to tell the story, straight from the viewpoint of our characters,” Rawal explains. If people want to do a deep dive into food sovereignty, they should read scholarly papers and books on the topic, he says. “If they want to get a snapshot of the emotion behind the movement right now, they could watch Gather.”

Sammy Gensaw

Courtesy Gather

The third storyline follows the Ancestral Guard, a group of young men in the Yurok tribe that teach local kids how to fish and smoke salmon along the Klamath River in California’s far north. “We’re salmon people,” says Sammy Gensaw III, the group’s leader.

Gold Rush prospectors once shot Yuroks on sight to clear them out of the way; only a fraction of them survived the genocide. Much of the Yurok’s remaining densely forested land is in the hands of timber companies or the National Parks system, which leases land to timber companies. More than a century of mining, logging, and the insertion of large dams have left the Klamath River in poor shape, and the supple Chinook and Coho salmon that once kept Yuroks well-fed are either extinct or critically endangered. Members of the Ancestral Guard feel a sense of duty to learn and practice their tribe’s fishing traditions so that they can be passed down to the next generation. “You’re born with a burden of being Indigenous,” Gensaw says. “If you don’t do this, they’ll be gone.”

There’s a hopeful postscript to this story, though it happened after Gather wrapped: After the Yurok and Karuk tribes organized and protested for decades to demand removal of the dams, PacificCorp, the energy and utility company that owns four dams on the Klamath, withdrew its final objection to their demolition just two weeks ago. The dams are set to come down in 2023. The plan may not be as sweeping as some had hoped, as a Los Angeles Times op-ed argued. But International Rivers, “the world’s most prominent anti-dam nonprofit,” called it “possibly the most important single initiative for river restoration anywhere and at any time.”

“The industrial revolution is over,” the Ancestral Guard’s Gensaw tells a class at the Yale School of the Environment in one of the film’s final scenes. “Now, if we want to survive, if we want to carry on life on earth, we need to be part of the restorative revolution.”

Restoration is also the focal point of Netflix’s Kiss the Ground, a documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson that centers on soil health. The film highlights regenerative agriculture, a “new, old approach to farming” that is gaining traction as a potential solution to climate change.

Harrelson introduces the approach as an antidote to the paralysis many of us feel in the face of rising temperatures and chaotic weather. With pristine diagrams and clear language, the film illuminates the science behind how it all works. I also wrote about it in-depth earlier this year. A recap: Plants inhale carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and turn it into fuel in the form of carbohydrates. Some of those sugars leak out the plant’s roots and nourish soil microbes. The enriched microbes, combined with the decaying stems and leaves of the plant, increase the health of the soil, allowing it to retain more carbon in the earth for longer periods of time.

Unfortunately, “modern agriculture was not designed for the betterment of the soil,” explains Ray Archuleta, a conservation agronomist and one of the film’s main scientific experts. Industrial agriculture currently leaves huge tracts of land bare, and the exposed soil releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide every year, contributing to global warming. But if farmers tweak their practices to keep fields covered with growth and stop applying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they can feed the soil rather than stripping it of its nutrients. The more we can coax soil into better health, the more it sequesters carbon, the more we can flip agriculture from climate change source to sink. As Harrelson puts it: “That’s a big deal.”

In order to further convince us that this is a big deal, Kiss the Ground stocks its scenes with celebrity advocates who seem ill-suited to the task. Model Gisele Bündchen and football icon Tom Brady are here to tell us about the wonders of a plant-based diet (which in their case is served to them on platters). The slick California governor Gavin Newsom is here to boast about San Francisco’s innovative composting system. Actors Patricia and David Arquette have arrived to brag about traveling to Haiti to teach the locals how to use composting toilets.

Husband-and-wife directing team Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell previously worked together on The Big Fix, a 2012 documentary about the 2010 BP oil spill. Rebecca Harrell Tickell is a former actress, and the couple owns a film studio and organic avocado farm, Big Picture Ranch, in Ojai. Is that why, when searching for a farmer to school us on agroforestry, they settled on…pop star Jason Mraz? As he urges us to grow our own coffee beans, the earnest Mraz strolls through his tropical fruit tree grove in San Diego while lyrics from his own song echo behind him, like a Gap commercial.

The aforementioned scenes underscore the film’s greatest weakness: By fixating on celebrities and centering on mostly white experts and farmers, Kiss the Ground offers a narrow view of the regenerative agriculture movement. It fails to explore how its characters are drawing on and profiting from wisdom held by Indigenous farmers for centuries.

As blogger and podcaster Kamea Chayne points out, the film, in one of its promotional graphics, implies that it has documented a “new breakthrough.” In fact, Indigenous people across North America practiced agriculture in a way that promoted healthy soil and therefore carbon sequestration. They managed crops, trees, and animals together, for instance, and planted legumes to fix nitrogen into the ground.

“White people didn’t ‘discover’ how to care for Earth,” writes Rishi Kumar, executive director of Sarvodaya Farms, in a response to Kiss the Ground that he posted on his Instagram page in October. Kumar says he worked as a contractor for the nonprofit Kiss the Ground, which is affiliated with the film, until he left the organization in August. Indigenous peoples, he writes, have been “robbed of their homelands, forced to forget their languages and cultural traditions.” Now they are being told, as Kumar puts it, “Hey, science (read: white people) has now validated what you’ve been doing” for millennia, but “you’re still not getting your land back.”

On Tuesday it was announced that the Tickells are being awarded a humanitarian award from the Red Nation International Film Festival. In a press release, Archuleta, the film’s star agronomist, described as “a person of both Native American and Latino heritage,” said that he was proud to be part of the project and saw it fitting that the directors should win the award. But critiques like Kumar’s may have seeped into the film’s orbit. The executive director of the nonprofit Kiss the Ground, Ryland Engelhart, called the film’s lack of cultural representation a “big miss” in an emailed statement and informed me that the organization was working on an educational cut of the documentary more focused on the Indigenous roots of regenerative practices.

Beyond its lack of diverse representation, Kumar argues, the film has a larger foundational problem: It refuses to view “the carbon in the atmosphere, and climate change more broadly” as a “symptom of a global colonial culture that treats Earth and people of color as resources to be mined.”

The film’s outlook remains sheltered under the auspices of modern capitalism. “The more you farm like nature,” Archuleta, the soil scientist, tells a group of white growers in Kansas at the start of the film, “the more money you can make.” He’s not alone in suggesting this. Tech companies have been exploring how to create financial incentives for carbon farming, and now so is Joe Biden’s team. But given where agribusiness has gotten us up until now, it’s worth asking: Should repairing the damage done by exploiting nature simply be a matter of recalibrating how we profit from a natural process? 

Kiss the Ground focuses on a practical solution for drawing down emissions that won’t require farmers to leave their industry or force people to give up the foods they love. At its best, it’s an informative film that might make you feel somewhat hopeful about the struggle against climate change.

But don’t get too cozy. As chef Nephi Craig says in Gather, “the first step in this is understanding violence in all its forms.” Kiss the Ground glosses over the political and cultural history at the root of today’s environmental havoc. It would have you forget the suppression of Indigenous farmers, who have practiced soil-friendly techniques for centuries. When a movement’s messengers are mostly over-hyped white-savior types, pro athletes, and sugary movie stars, it’s worth asking whom the message is for and whether the solution offered is meant to benefit us all.

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