The local foods movement has swept the nation in recent years, with individuals buying foods produced close to home or grown in their own backyards or community gardens. This emphasis can also be found in some restaurants, grocery stores and school cafeterias.
Local foods are considered by many to be more nutritious as well as more sustainable, because they typically require less energy to grow, package and transport than commercial brands. They might also be more reliable in the event of a man-made or natural disaster so, in that respect, they can help make a community more resilient.
But, for many Native Americans, local foods hold a special significance, inherently linked to their culture and the very sovereignty of their tribes.
First Nations Development Institute, based in Longmont, Colo., is a leader in the tribal food sovereignty movement. First Nations improves economic conditions for Native Americans through technical assistance and training, advocacy and policy, and direct financial grants. They focus on achieving Native financial empowerment, investing in Native youth, strengthening tribal and community institutions, advancing household and community asset-building strategies and nourishing Native foods and health.
A-dae Romero-Briones is associate director of research and policy, native agriculture, with First Nations. She said the organization funds projects both on reservations and for grassroots urban communities that support or work with tribal people. She explained that tribal food sovereignty is a specific term taking into account historic relationships with the federal government, from the time of first contact.
"In tribal communities, tribal food sovereignty means the federal policies and laws that have affected our food systems," Romero-Briones said. Traditional food sources often are located on non-tribal land, difficult to access. "Historically, the reservation system affected land bases and our food sources. We can't hunt or gather outside the reservation, so tribal food sovereignty is a re-visioning of our food systems outside of federal policy." In other words, "Tribal food sovereignty means being able to provide traditional foods that our grandparents have eaten, to future generations."
Native Americans face specific cultural barriers but also challenges shared by most Americans. "We are dealing with what any other American is dealing with: the onslaught of processed foods," Romero-Briones said. "In America we have a food system of quicker, faster, accessible at any fast food place, or ready to make food in the super market." She said this easy availability compounds the already existing issue of tribal tradition long under assault by tribal policies. "Traditional food sources are harder to access and more time consuming. They require greater knowledge."
"Tribal food sovereignty is much more than community gardens, although that is an important part," she said. "Food systems aren't just about planting, but about how we define our relationship to the earth and how we feed our bodies. It is not as simple as planting a potato." For example, Native Americans in Michigan and Wisconsin are part of a wild rice gathering culture. Being successful depends on knowledge passed down for generations.
"You have to know when and where, and what other elements are affecting it. You need a ceremony and community cooperation where you go together to gather it." Romero-Briones noted that success depends on more than any one individual. "One individual can plant a garden but true tribal sovereignty means thinking about the entire community."
According to Romero-Briones, "With the introduction of the cash economy there is more fragmentation. That is because families have to make wages to buy groceries, which means less time for them to spend building community cooperation."
For example, children are required to be in school eight hours a day, which is a good thing, Romero-Briones said. But it means less time for community education, finding time to be sure children learn where and how to gather traditional foods. That knowledge is becoming more scarce, especially due to what she noted has been "generations of Native Americans being sent away for boarding school and told what your parents taught you is not important."
Romero-Briones said now people have become interested in reclaiming that knowledge as part of community identity, and don't need convincing of its importance. Of course, children are children, and families are competing against the same distractions all Americans face. That includes teaching 7-year-old children to want native foods instead of Cheetos. "Or teaching them to want to sit with their grandparents to husk corn for five hours on Saturday afternoon instead of what other things takes them away. It means trying to convince outside partners like federal and state government that it is important for children in school cafeterias to have native foods," she said.
"We are fighting for the taste buds of our children. If nobody eats it from birth to age 12 they're probably not going to ever eat it. So how do we get this food into our children when they are mostly in institutions all day?"
There is not one answer to this question but there are as many answers as there are First Nations grantees.
One first step many grantees take is to use the First Nations Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool, which helps communities map out and characterize their current food system. According to Assessment Tool authors, "Local food systems are often one of the most overlooked assets of a community and, often, remain unprotected. However, food systems are an important asset that have a substantial impact on the health and well-being of a community, and may very well be the central cultural tie that connects individuals with community."
The assessment tool asks participants to consider questions as basic as where their community gets its food, to more complex questions about policy. A sampling of questions includes: Who decides what foods are available in your community? Who in the community is doing positive work in advancing local food-system control? Do you know what agriculture food traditions are still practiced in your community? How can we collaborate with non-Native communities in our efforts toward advocacy for traditional foods?
Projects supported by First Nations bear witness that economics and food go hand in hand. According to Romero-Briones, "In the early pre-cash economy, food taught us how to manage resources, and food systems assured they were managed well. Now with the cash economy food is severed from the idea of economic development. In America in general, food expenses account for 30 percent of income. But people in generally isolated communities where tribal economic development may be weak spend the majority of their income on food and fuel."
Tribal food sovereignty is about intergenerational connection beyond the garden. "Take the relationship we have with food and apply that to community principles. If we care enough to plant or gather our own food, we can decide how to apply that to community-building," Romero-Briones said.
First Nations recognizes that accessing healthy food is a challenge for many Native American children and families. Two projects under their initiative called "Nourishing Native Foods & Health" are the "Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative," and "Seeds of Native Health."
Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative grants are intended to help tribes and Native communities build sustainable food systems. Seeds of Native Health was created and funded by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC). It seeks to improve awareness of Native nutrition problems, promote wider application of proven best practices, and encourage additional work related to food access, education and research.
In 2016 First Nations awarded 12 grants totaling more than $390,000 under the Seeds of Native Health campaign. In the previous year, First Nations awarded 15 such grants totaling $523,000. One of the 2015 grantees is Red Lake Nation, located in northwestern Minnesota.
Red Lake Nation has numerous tribal programs, one of which focuses on infrastructure planning and economic development.
They define planning as something that brings the community and technical resources together to create infrastructure that the community can be proud of. They say that "Economic development in Red Lake constitutes creating a local economy through fostering business for the Tribe and individual entrepreneurs."
Current projects include a community center, constitution reform, Ojibwe language revitalization, an arts initiative and a local food initiative. Sharon James is small business development manager with 4-Directions Development (previously known as Red Lake Nation Entrepreneur program) which coordinates these efforts.
James explained the interest in access to healthy foods came up in a series of regular community meetings led by Tribal Chairman Darrell G. Seki. "The entrepreneur program picked up on that interest to eat more healthy foods and decided to help create an entrepreneurial environment for Red Lake Nation, to develop the ag industry as part of our economy," James said. The goals are to help create or strengthen the local economy for Red Lake Nation, to help provide access to locally grown healthy foods and to help decrease food-related health problems.
James said one of their first steps was to go through First Nations' Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool. Then they began strategic planning to develop a food system for Red Lake Nation.
According to James, "The first step is training, to connect back with Mother Earth, to teach people how to nurture the soil, protect water, stay away from GMO seeds and have healthy seeds to start with. From planting, caring, harvesting, distribution: that's a food system to help local tribal members."
They are reaching the end of the first year of their funding, which has mostly been focused on planning and training rather than on food production and distribution. "We have created a training ground called Gitigaanike, which means you are nurturing and helping something grow," James explained. This is the basis for developing the agricultural impact of community from seeds, to process, to harvesting. Now they are studying the Business of Indian Agriculture curriculum, developed by First Nations, to help farmers and ranchers develop their businesses.
They are focused on two target markets for this entrepreneurial effort: individual backyard family farmers, and individuals who want to produce food to sell to businesses such as stores, casinos, and restaurants.
"We are focused on fruits and vegetables for now but will start incorporating animal husbandry, looking at chicken, buffalo, trying to keep traditional foods as part of this," James said. Although younger people are coming to meetings and to the training ground, James said they are looking at more ways to get youth involved. "If they can identify with other youth participating, they'll be more willing," she said.
First, Red Lake Nation needs to concentrate on getting through the long Minnesota winter. But as soon as practical they'll be preparing high tunnels for a spring planting. They also hope to add a deep winter greenhouse one day, as funding is available.
James said they've had strong local partners, such as the Health Center, the Workforce Center and the Land Office. In addition, 4-Directions staff members are a major asset, she said, including Cherilyn Spears, special projects coordinator with the economic development department, David Manuel, foods initiative coordinator, and Michael Van Horn, business developer. "We will be successful because everyone has a strong heart. Their heart is in it."
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-first Century.