This Indigenous Foods Activist Has a Message for Home Cooks

"Know where you’re standing. Find out whose land you’re on. Find out their names."

Felicia Ruiz
Photo: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

“I come from a place of ancestral wisdom,” says Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, an indigenous foods activist and curandera—traditional healer—who has been called the “godmother of the movement to decolonize the kitchen.” Ruiz, who is based in Phoenix, leads workshops, traditional ceremonies, and private consultations and also works with some of the world’s top-rated wellness resorts. In 1991, her brother tested positive for HIV, and she massaged his feet to offer comfort. He encouraged her to study massage, which sparked her journey of learning and sharing. Ruiz’s most valuable tool is the knowledge and traditions of her Mexican and Tewa ancestors and other elders through the Southwest. — Interview by Julia Turshen, founder of Equity at the Table (EATT) and author of Now & Again

What does a curandera do?

When someone falls out of harmony and balance, we bring them back into it by working with plants, body, mind, and spirit. There are different types of curanderas based on traditional ways of healing and supporting the body to heal.

How do you determine what a client needs?

I sit with clients and just listen for at least 45 minutes to an hour. I sit with a notebook. Food isn’t just nutrients.

What is indigenous foods activism?

We define what native food is. It’s everywhere. A lot of us weren’t allowed to eat those types of foods because they were considered poor people food. The food we eat is a lifeline back to our ancestors. In the Sonoran Desert, we have one of the most edible landscapes in the world. People see it as brown and lifeless, but the plants hold so much medicine.

What do the elders in your community teach you?

They’re the doorway to knowing myself. I didn’t grow up with many elders around, so now, even if they’re not my own relations, they see an inspired Native versus doing Native-inspired work. They’re happy to share because if people aren’t collecting the information, it will go to waste.

What do you wish you could tell all indigenous home cooks?

They’ve been told they aren’t important. They’ve been shamed for their weight and other issues. I wish I could say from the beginning, “You are worthy of learning how to cook.”

How do the people you teach or treat find you?

I am funded by nonprofits and grants to teach people on reservations about our foods. By “our” I mean brown people indigenous to the Southwest. I talk about food from a non-trendy point of view—no terms like “superfoods.” I take people back to a place they badly want to go. I also work with wellness resorts. Sometimes it’s working with their menus, helping them not appropriate their food. They hire me as a guest chef. I bring stories. I also do private cooking lessons. My work as a curandera is by referral. I’m a safe space.

How can readers best support these communities?

If you live in the US, you live in an indigenous community. Know where you’re standing. Find out whose land you’re on. Find out their names.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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