Food Sovereignty
Food insecurity is abundant on Native American reservations, with the lack of grocery stores and affordable fresh foods leading to high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. As of 2018, a quarter of Native Americans lacked access to nutritious foods. When COVID-19 hit, the more than two-hour round trips to get food were often fruitless, as panic-induced buying emptied store shelves. Some tribes are now taking matters into their own hands. Today, solutions to the problem are starting to emerge with a variety of tribal and intertribal efforts exploring food sovereignty.

The Structure of Reservations

Federal government mismanagement of native lands is a major underlying cause of food insecurity. Through the federal trust doctrine, the U.S. government owns and manages native lands and assets. This means that reservation residents are not usually the owners of homes. This makes it impossible to mortgage property to start a business on a reservation. Federal land ownership hinders harnessing natural resources and developing the land. On-reservation development projects must go through 49 steps, spread across four government agencies before approval. In contrast, off-reservation projects require only four steps and this difference extends wait time from a couple of months to years.

These factors, in addition to low population density and poverty, cause companies to avoid investing in reservations. Tribal leaders or entrepreneurs are able to start farms. However, the leaders often lack the complementary infrastructures needed to get their products on grocery store shelves. As such, produce and meats often leave the reservation for services such as grading, freezing and packaging. By the time the products make it back to the reservation, the produce is less fresh and marked-up due to travel.

The Disruption of Traditional Diets

The lack of infrastructure and government restrictions on hunting and gathering create food insecurity on many reservations. The Pine Ridge Reservation imports 95% of foods and everyday necessities while the Menominee Reservation, the largest reservation east of the Mississippi River, has only one grocery store.

Due to the situation, some families’ only option is to seek government assistance. In 2015, 24% of Native families participated in the SNAP program, formerly known as the Food Stamps Program. This is almost twice as much involvement as that of the general population. Furthermore, nearly a fifth of all Native children participated in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) free or reduced school lunches at the same time.

These programs, while important to feeding the hungry, do not conform with traditional diets. In 2014, the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations only allocated roughly $1 per meal. These meals are high in processed sugars and carbohydrates and lacking in fresh produce. This leads to high rates of health problems on reservations. For example, 42% of Native Americans struggle with obesity, and 20% of Navajo adults have diabetes, the third-highest rate in the world, below only Nauru and Mauritius.

Reclaiming Traditional Diets

In 2018, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin established the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems (DAFS). Embracing their traditional culture and diets, the Menominee move toward food sovereignty by hunting, fishing, gathering, tree tapping and farming.

DAFS Director Gary Besaw told The Borgen Project that the Menominee Tribe has a long history of agriculture. Archaeological evidence shows that the Menominee gardened through the last ice age. To do so, the Menominee used advanced techniques like raised-bed farming and biochar to improve soil quality. The tribe has reclaimed producing squash, maple syrup and corn, with hopes of growing orchards in the near future.

Nature and Intertribal Efforts

Prior to reservation life, the Menominee had access to fishing over much of the Great Lakes and their river systems. The current location of the Menominee Tribe’s reservation lacks this access. This makes it difficult to obtain enough fish without depleting the local resources.

Besaw stressed the importance of intertribal commerce and collaboration since each Tribal Nation has access to different food and lands. Besaw informed The Borgen Project that “re-establishing intertribal trade and commerce allows not only for economic growth in a sustainable green industry but also allows us to obtain healthy traditional foods.” Both products and skills move between tribes. The Menominee work with neighboring tribes and organic farms to grow food, manually dealing with weeds, pests and invasive species.

One of the Menominee Tribe’s partners, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, worked with the Intertribal Agriculture Council to form the Mobile Farmer’s Market. This organization connects Native Americans across the United States with produce grown and harvested by Native Americans. Additionally, the Mobile Farmer’s Market hosts workshops to facilitate the spread of traditional skills.

In February 2019, a workshop occurred on the Menominee Reservation, teaching farming, seed keeping and healthy diets. According to Besaw, Menominee County has the highest rate of diabetes and heart disease in Wisconsin. The move toward food sovereignty and traditional diets has had a positive impact on the community’s health. To supplement these healthier diets, the Menominee Tribe is also conducting early-stage diagnosis and tracing family trees to see who has a genetic predisposition to diabetes.

Food Insecurity and COVID-19

According to Besaw, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the level of dependency that his tribe has on the federal government for food. The food boxes that the USDA provided were a lifesaver, though sometimes compromising his tribe’s goal of growing food indigenously, without GMOs and pesticides.

Across the country, many tribes have realized this as well. In Minnesota, the Dream of Wild Health intertribal nonprofit organization is working to distribute food to food-insecure Native Americans living in the Twin Cities. The organization owns a 30-acre pollinator farm outside of the Twin Cities and produces pesticide- and GMO-free produce.

Throughout the Dream of Wild Health’s history, the organization has received heirloom seeds from around North America. In 2019, it started to identify the seeds and return them to its community of origin, benefitting in-state and out-of-state tribes. According to another seed-saving organization, Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, the demand for seeds has increased around 4,900% during COVID-19, as Native Americans strive toward food sovereignty during these challenging times.

With many tribes and intertribal organizations around to help Native Americans attain food sovereignty, prospects are growing across North America. Not only are traditions returning but traditions are also making their way between and outside of tribes. As these efforts continue with success, it is time the U.S. government steps up to give tribes the support they need in a way that will not jeopardize their health further.

Riley Behlke
Photo: Flickr

Native American communities During COVID-19
As of July 20, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports more than 190 million confirmed COVID-19 cases with almost 4 million deaths and the administering of almost 3.5 million vaccine doses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in December of 2020 that Native American communities are 3.5 times more likely to fall sick with the novel coronavirus and 1.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white people.

Harvard field research teacher Eric Henson calls what the tribes are having as “the worst of both worlds at the same time.” Businesses entirely stopped their services at the start of this health crisis. These communities had their tax base reduced entirely to zero. All tribal businesses closed. Like other minority groups, Native American communities often work jobs that do not provide proper medical insurance. Many of these jobs are ‘essential work,’ meaning these individuals nevertheless face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. However, efforts are providing aid to Native American communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Vaccine for Minorities

Native American communities during COVID-19 are accepting safety measures to prevent the novel coronavirus. Early discussions considered giving priority to minorities with the first vaccine dose, at odds with the Trump Administration. While little data exists regarding vaccination rates amongst ethnicities during the vaccine rollout under President Biden, several prominent Native Americans were prioritizing vaccines in their communities. As a result of the American Indian communities’ core values of putting the community first before the individual, their stance to accept the first wave of vaccines is for the health of their whole tribe as well. One individual’s health protected through the vaccine keeps other non-infected community members in a safer environment.

A recent survey that the Urban Indian Health Institute conducted showed that 75% of Native Americans are willing to receive vaccinations. Surveys show 75% of American Indians are concerned with side effects from novel coronavirus protection measures. However, two out of three participants are confident they are safe.

Funding For Native Americans During a Global Pandemic

The CDC has given $219.5 million to aid tribal communities during this health crisis. Its approach has ensured that these communities have access to necessary materials to prevent, provide for and respond to outbreaks. The U.S. Congress directs $165 million of the funding from the CDC through two acts. The acts are H.R 6074, a bill providing $8.3 billion in emergency funding for COVID-19, and the CARES Act, a bill protecting the healthcare system, employed workers and the economy against the health pandemic.

The Administration for Native Americans has a branch referred to as the Administration of Children and Families (ACF). The branch exists within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ACF has supported Native American communities during COVID-19. Its website provides resources to grant programs providing Native tribes, families and individuals access to funding for the pandemic. Resources include administrative relief, human services activities and natural disaster alleviation for Native Americans during COVID-19.

A Return to Normalcy

The effects of COVID-19 are detrimental to many communities, especially those already in the minority before the pandemic. As Native Americans are some of the first to receive vaccines, the families are back on their way to normalcy.

Libby Keefe
Photo: Flickr

Native American WomenThe 2017 film, Wind River, based on actual events, riveted the public with its reported death rate of Native American women on American reservations. Writer-producer Taylor Sheridan aimed to raise awareness of the overlooked death rate and has succesfully done so since.

Violence Against Indigenous Women

Where poverty is the greatest, indigenous women experience domestic violence rates 10 times higher than the national average for all races. In addition, 84% of Native American women experience violence in their lifetimes or one in three each year. The perpetrators are most often non-Native men outside the jurisdiction of tribal law enforcement.

Murdered indigenous women numbers rose to 500 in 2018, which is a low figure compared to the actual number of missing persons on reservations. Women have silently died and gone missing, underreported, for years. This is due to the discordance that exists between tribal, federal and local law enforcement. However, changes are being made ever since the 1978 ruling of Oliphant v. Suquamish, where it was ruled that Indian courts have no criminal jurisdiction over non-natives. In November of 2019, President Trump signed an executive order to investigate the matter of unsolved cases of missing or murdered Native Americans.

Legislatively Addressing the Issue

Several major changes have since been underway. For example, the Not Invisible Act of 2020 will increase national focus on violent crime against indigenous people and intergovernmental coordination on the high death rate of Native American women. This bill began in 2019 as the Not Invisible Act of 2019; the first bipartisan bill in history to be introduced by four tribal representatives: Deb Haaland, Tom Cole, Sharice Davids and Markwayne Mullin.

To complement the Not Invisible Act, Savanna’s Act became public law in October 2020. Named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a murdered young indigenous woman whose fetus was cut from her womb, Savanna’s Act will ensure the Justice Department reports statistics on all missing/murdered native women and reform law enforcement. In addition, the National Institute of Justice has created the National Baseline Study which is a study on the health, wellbeing and safety of Native American women, to also provide more accurate data on femicide.

Safe Women, Strong Nations

In addition, the Safe Women, Strong Nations project partners with native nations to combat abductions and murder. The project provides legal advice to the tribes in restoring authority and holding perpetrators responsible. The project works to raise awareness to gain federal action to eliminate the violence against native women.

Poverty makes it easier for native women to be overlooked. One in three Native Americans suffer from poverty, living off on average $23,000 a year. “Poverty is both the cause and the consequence of all the ills visited upon Native Americans.” It is common knowledge that poverty provides leeway for criminality, and with Native American reservations being economically disadvantaged, this is no exception. Addressing systemic poverty instead of turning a blind eye will help lower the death rate of native women. The reservations only need opportunity and U.S.  juridical attention. It is hopeful to see that the United States’ legislative representatives are addressing violence against minority groups but more work needs to be done to protect the well-being of Native American women.

– Shelby Gruber
Photo: Flickr