Food Sovereignty: Reclaiming Food Systems

The consequences of colonization on indigenous peoples and nations are well-documented and far-reaching, and food is no exception. As colonists and the federal government forcibly removed indigenous peoples from their homelands to largely remote areas, indigenous peoples often lost access to a variety of food sources.

In many cases where food became inaccessible because of forced relocation from homelands, the federal government provided rations that were often culturally inappropriate and lacking nutritional value, like flour and lard, for example. This practice of not providing the right kinds of food, in addition to the federal government’s broader efforts to relocate, isolate American Indians on reservations, assimilate, and terminate tribes, continues to impact Indian Country today. Examples of those impacts include greater prevalence of heart disease and diabetes, food environments in tribal communities that are lacking, and a forced participation in a food system that holds back tribal communities.

Now, tribal food sovereignty is a growing movement across Indian Country to reclaim food systems and health. On August 14 and 15, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council hosted the Roots 2 A Sovereign Nation Food Summit, an event dedicated to the food sovereignty movement.

In her keynote address, Winona LaDuke, a food sovereignty advocate, said, “You can’t say you’re sovereign if you can’t feed yourself.”

As LaDuke suggested, the tribal food sovereignty movement is about more than just food and having enough good food. Tribal food sovereignty centers land, environmental stewardship, cultural traditions, nutrition, health, community, empowerment, and self-determination, or self-direction. Tribal food sovereignty is holistic and is about reclaiming and defining food systems in a way that promotes tribal sovereignty, or the inherent authority of tribes to govern themselves. Tribal food sovereignty, like data sovereignty, is a movement by indigenous people for indigenous people.

According to the Traditional Plants and Foods Program of Northwest Indian College, tribal communities that exhibit food sovereignty and food sustainability are those that:

  • Have access to healthy food;
  • Have foods that are culturally appropriate;
  • Grow, gather, hunt, and fish in ways that are maintainable over the long term;
  • Distribute foods in ways so people get what they need to stay healthy;
  • Adequately compensate the people who provide the food; and
  • Use tribal treaty rights and uphold policies that ensure continued access to traditional foods.

Tribal food sovereignty efforts look different across tribes, are as diverse as the tribes themselves, and are growing across Indian Country. Examples range from farmers markets and community gardens to resource management practices and tribal food policy and code. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), for example, is in the process of developing its own food policy that incorporates community feedback.

On the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, the Chippewa Cree Tribe pushed to require the local farmers market to place food labels on goods so that shoppers could make informed decisions about their food purchases, an action that centers and empowers consumers.

The Blackfeet Nation recently created a five-year food sovereignty strategic plan, which, by 2024, aims to improve access to affordable, nourishing foods within the area. Like the CSKT, the Blackfeet Nation centers community participation in developing a truly sovereign plan for reclaiming food systems and improving community well-being. That means surveying community members, engaging youth, and involving community partners. The plan is broad in scope and acknowledges that the shift away from traditional indigenous food systems, and therefore the shift away from community, has hurt the health of the community and of individuals.

Although food sovereignty efforts can look vastly different across tribes, community is a constant theme. As individuals and tribes decide to take matters to improve their food systems into their own hands, efforts are exploding across Indian Country, many of which people outside of the community are not aware.

While tribes are actively working to recreate food systems that meet community needs in Indian Country, the state has a role to play. As tribal communities look to strengthen community food systems and grow their food sovereignty, there is a need for increased investment and access to capital for tribally owned agricultural businesses.

One way the state can continue to support these efforts is by continuing to invest in the Indian Country Economic Development (ICED) Program, which awards funds to projects that strengthen Montana’s economy through the development and enhancement of business opportunities on reservations, in tribal communities, and for American Indian businesses. In 2018, the Fort Peck Tribes, for example, received $28,000 to put toward the completion of an irrigation project. According to the project description, the project would convert non-irrigated farmland to irrigated farmland, create jobs, and increase the value of the land by nearly $2.7 million, all an outstanding return on investment.

As Joshua Brown, who is researching food sovereignty at the University of Montana, says, “…if we create policy that can set goals, it can transform communities in years to come.”

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