Native American author, educator, activist, mother and grandmother Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabekwe, is calling on tribes to relocalize food and energy production as a means of both reducing CO2 emissions and of asserting tribes' inherent right to live in accordance with their own precepts of the sacredness of Mother Earth and responsibility to future generations.
She said during a recent presentation on climate change at Harvard University, "We essentially need tribal food and energy policies that reflect sustainability. Tribes [as sovereign nations] have jurisdiction over food from seed to table and we need to take it or else USDA will take it…. The last thing you want is USDA telling you how to cook your hominy, that you can't use ashes in it …. I am the world-renowned, or reservation-wide renowned, beaver tamale queen. So who's going to come to my house and [inspect the beaver]? I don't want USDA in my food. I want us to exercise control over our food and not have them saying we can't eat what we traditionally eat."
LaDuke was talking about tribal food sovereignty.
Neither the United States Department of Agriculture nor the Food and Drug Administration is likely to turn up in your family's kitchen, but federal policies have a lot to say about what food products are allowed to get into that kitchen in the first place. Antibiotics and growth hormones in the meat supply, vast harvests of corn, rice or wheat cultivated from the same genetic stock, genetically modified organisms—be they corn or soy or fish–and preservatives added to food during processing are primarily under the control of the USDA and FDA. As are the regulations about what foods can be served by tribes at day care centers, schools and senior centers, not to mention those on how food intended for commercial markets must be grown and processed.
Of particular concern right now is the 2011 federal Food Safety Modernization Act, which increases regulation and oversight of food production in an effort to prevent contamination. If the rules pertaining to the law are not changed in response to public comments, some of the federal government's regulatory and inspection responsibilities will devolve to state governments, a direct threat to tribal sovereignty, according to First Nations Community Development Institute Senior Program Officer Raymond Foxworth, Navajo. "The [historic] loss of food system control in Indian Country is highly correlated with things like the loss of land, the loss of some aspects of culture related to agricultural processes, and … some pretty negative health statistics [including obesity, diabetes and lifespan]. It's our belief that food sovereignty is one solution to combat some of these negative effects, be it the negative health statistics, the loss of culture or the loss of land."
The institute has been instrumental in establishing the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance under its Native American Food System Initiative. The alliance will be a national organization focused on networking, best practices and policy issues. The founding members of NAFSA "have been working on trying to pressure the FDA into initiating tribal consultations related to FSMA."
The alliance, in the works for more than a decade, recently got start-up funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. FNCDI contracted with the Taos County Economic Development Corp. to coordinate its establishment. Directors Pati Martinson and Terrie Bad Hand convened a group of 16 people who have been working on food systems at the grassroots level to form a founding council. That group had its first face-to-face meeting in October.
Among the founding council members is Dana Eldridge, Navajo, formerly on the staff at Diné College and now an independent consultant and would-be farmer, who has done extensive work in analyzing food systems for the Navajo Nation. One of her main concerns is genetically modified organisms. GMOs, she says, threaten both the ownership of Native seeds and the spiritual aspects of food. "Corn is very sacred to us—it's our most sacred plant. We pray with corn pollen–in our Creation story we're made of corn—so what does it mean that this plant has been turned into something that actively harms people?"
Eldridge says food sovereignty is also important because it is a way to begin to address the trauma colonization has inflicted on Native people. "What I've learned during this food research is you can't produce food by yourself. You need people, you need family, you need community and relationships, so a lot of it is about rebuilding community and reconnecting with the land and I think that's a very important healing process for our people."
The Taos County Economic Development Corp. has found that one way to keep USDA and FDA out of your kitchen is to invite them in. When regulators amped up their enforcement of regulations in relation to Native commercial food enterprises in northern New Mexico, TCEDC built a 5,000-square-food commercial kitchen where people could process their crops and learn directly from USDA inspectors what the regulations were. Says Martinson, "The food center was our way of modeling and bringing forward local healthy food through helping those people become actual businesses and entrepreneurs." In 2006, TCEDC added a mobile slaughtering unit. Housed in a tractor trailer truck, the MSU travels out to small ranches where USDA inspectors oversee the slaughter of livestock—"bison, beef, sheep, goats and the occasional yak," says Bad Hand–intended for commercial sale. The meat is then brought back to the center for cutting and packaging, again under federal oversight.
There is an irony to all this federal oversight of food production in sovereign Native nations, says Martinson. Traditional Native food growing, harvesting and processing principles kept people healthy for millennia before USDA even existed. The food contamination that FSMA is intended to prevent is a consequence of the industrialization of food production. "All these scares that you hear about, e. coli or salmonella making people really sick, if you trace those back, they come from huge packing plants, from industry.
"One of the things that I think Native people recognize and have passed down culturally is that you need to have human beings within food production ecosystems for all of those reasons—safety, quality, a relationship with your food. The principles of safe food are indigenous and inherent in Native communities," Martinson says.
The answer to "What's for dinner?" has profound implications for the well-being of Native American tribes. Tribal food sovereignty could mean the difference between continuing to retain (or regain) language, land, religious precepts, traditional lifeways and physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health or losing them.