2017-01-04 / Top News

Building Indian Country through food-sovereignty

By Aly Duncan Neely
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

The Food Sovereignty Program empowers Native Americans to grow their own nutritious and traditional foods. The Food Sovereignty Program empowers Native Americans to grow their own nutritious and traditional foods. RAPID CITY –– The effects of treaties and the Indian Relocation Act (IRA) of 1934 on Native American tribes in the United States have long contributed to the ongoing struggle of native nations for self-determination.

Nowhere is this struggle as evident as in controlling the resources of tribal lands. The most recent push toward self-determination is marked by renewed effort in tribal governance to devolve the stranglehold that state and federal governments have on the ability to develop effective methods and outcomes of their own governing actions. Through collaborative, tradition-based approaches toward community research, development, and governance, fostering inclusive methods of making decisions, and encouraging cooperative tribal, state, and federal planning, some native nations have been revitalized economically and culturally.

Reorganized government infrastructures have opened pathways toward more resilient communities, allowing those communities to create systems that support the well-being of tribal members and implement actions that will outlast variances in political climate. Nation building and self-determination rely heavily on tribal legal codification and how those laws are affected, or not affected, by state and federal authorities. For the purpose of increasing land, water, and other resource sovereignty, as well as food sovereignty, these codes and laws must reflect nation-building principles.

Native American resource sovereignty in the US is deeply embedded in the development of tribal governing systems and how state and federal authorities and agencies are connected to those systems. In the nation-building approach, native nations move from prior methods of tribal development to an approach centered on the foundational building blocks of nation building. Sociologist Stephen Cornell and Economist Joseph P. Kalt, co-founders of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at the Kennedy School of Government, describe five key components of the nation building process (Cornell and Kalt in Jorgensen, Ed., 2007):

• Native nations assert decision making power.

• Native nations back up that power with effective governing institutions.

• Governing institutions match Indigenous political culture.

• Decision making is strategic.

• Leaders serve as nation builders and mobilizers (p. 19).

These five components have been found by the joint Harvard project, in conjunction with a University of Arizona Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, or NNI, research coalition, to distinguish successful development from floundering infrastructures. At the root of nation building are three cornerstones: development, governance, and culture; as defined by Manley A. Begay Jr., co-authors Cornell and Kalt, and co-author and editor, Miriam Jorgensen (pp. 34-54).

A shift in federal US policy toward native nations in the 1960s and 70s, culminating in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (P.L. 93- 638), gave native nations the opportunity to exercise self-rule more extensively (Cornell and Kalt, in Jorgensen Ed., 2007, p. 20). This opened the door to greater decision making capacity, self-determination, and the option to manage tribal affairs more robustly, however, most tribal governments did not have the infrastructure in place to implement programs needed by tribal members. Many tribal leaders were little more than distributors of benefits of federally created programs. The challenge has been for native leaders to substantially shift from the old system of governing to the nation building method of exercising self-determination. This requires a focused, strategic approach to rebuilding government infrastructure, putting the culture of the tribe at the center of that strategy. To achieve legitimacy in the minds and hearts of its people, a tribal governing body must reflect the culture of the people, according to Begay, Jr., Cornell, Kalt, & Jorgensen (2007, pp. 46-52).

The field-based Whirling Thunder Wellness Program of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, created in 1985, is a prime example of inter-organizational cooperation, providing public programming to assist with diabetes and substance abuse, offering prevention programs and a wellness center “to encourage healthy lifestyles consistent with traditional practices,” according to Alyce S. Adams, Andrew J. Lee, and Michael Lipsky (in Jorgensen, Ed., 2007, p. 235). The strategy coordinated efforts and promoted a consistent message through collaboration with tribal health and social service organizations, creating the integrated Winnebago Wellness Coalition, which developed a fitness center and further collaborated with the US Department of Agriculture to secure approval to use bison meat as a healthy alternative to beef in federally funded programs for children on the reservation.

Collaboration is a strategic nation building tool for supporting a development process requiring inclusive, complex, strategic planning for service programs that prioritize the role of native cultures. Other tools for securing sustainable outcomes for public services include:

• strategic funding options to foster financial self-determination

• developing effective hiring practices with vocational training and education programs

• identifying priorities to pursuing effectively respond to community needs

• make programs culturally relevant using traditional approaches

Efforts to control natural resources have led to legal conflicts, confronting state, local, and federal policies that support foreign or otherwise non-tribal industries over the rights of indigenous peoples. Forestry, land trusts, water rights, fishing and hunting rights, and more recently food sovereignty, closely related to health and wellness, have dominated the political landscape. In 1999, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, an organization of eleven member tribes around Lake Superior, entered into an agreement with the US Department of Agriculture, guaranteeing tribal hunting, gathering, and fishing rights on ceded lands on four national forests, and implemented under tribal authority (Harvard Project on American Indian Development, 2000; Hicks in Jorgensen, Ed., 2007).

Collaborative, beneficial intergovernmental relationships regarding healthy programs and rights to food sustenance are precursors to food sovereignty for native nations. These programs and agreements seek to devolve federal authority in tribal programs and promote self-determination. One tribe that has worked to create and implement tribal codes that protect food sovereignty and promote their food culture is the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Phoenix, Arizona. Jacob Butler, the Garden Coordinator for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community stated, “We try to grow what’s been here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” according to Yes! Magazine journalist Tristan Ahtone of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma (2016). Traditional foods for members of the Pima and Maricopa tribes included lima beans, squash, melons, corn, and a variety of vegetables, mesquite trees for food, medicinal, and other purposes, and wild game. “Our garden is a platform to perpetuate our culture,” Butler commented. “For the past thirteen years we’ve been doing this, so it’s in the minds of the people now.”

Many of the traditional heirloom plants that once thrived have become extinct, their stories lost, but the garden is a way to perpetuate tribal stories and culture. Butler asked, “What are the stories that go along with this tree? What’s the story we tell that says when squash came to the people or corn came to the people? What are the songs that go with those things?” He stated that “losing other heirloom foods would have irreversible effects on cultural practices” (Ahtone, 2016). Food sovereignty, a part of tribal sovereignty, must be treated in the same way as other self-determination issues. Dae Romero-Briones, a consultant with the First Nations Development Institute, stated that you assert food sovereignty through tribal codes. Localizing food facilities and methods inspections, establishing codes to protect seed banks and traditional planting and harvesting methods, are some ways to exercise tribal sovereignty.

(For more information on food sovereignty issues, please contact Aly Duncan Neely via the Native Sun News Today.)

Return to top

This Week's Poll

Will American Indians survive a Trump administration?