The world feasts on Native Americans’ food while Native Americans go hungry.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition wants to change that. And its members are looking to Congress for support.
Tell Congress: Support the Tribal Food and Housing Security Act!
About 60 percent of the food eaten around the world today originated in the Americas. Meanwhile, Native Americans are twice as likely to be food insecure compared to whites.
This meme says it best: “Give a man some corn, feed him for a day. Teach a man to grow corn, he kills you and steals your land.”
Despite the atrocities they have suffered, the Native American population continues to grow. And now there is a renewed movement for Native food sovereignty and security rooted in ancient wisdom.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition, which represents 65 tribes throughout the U.S., is advocating for equity in the Farm Bill, legislation that determines how more than $900 billionin U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) resources is distributed each year.
The coalition’s “Regaining Our Future” report presents in-depth proposals for how the Farm Bill can better serve Native American communities. Those proposals includerecognizing and insuring different types of livestock (reindeer, caribou, elk), more assistance for conservation and for marketing traditional or unique Native American foods, and the right to run their own food stamp program with an emphasis on local foods.
The coalition is backing the Tribal Food and Housing Security Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), to improve affordable nutrition, housing and rural development assistance for Native American communities.
Native Americans' Manmade Eden
In "Pristine Nature: The Founding Falsehood," Steven H. Rich explains that what European colonists mistakenly described as wilderness was actually a human-created and nurtured landscape, providing food, medicinal herbs, bountiful wildlife, healthy, living soil and clean water.
Native Americans managed their environment with intention. Through seed-saving, crossbreeding and habitat-management they produced higher-yielding, better-tasting, climate-resilient and more nutritious varieties of plants and animals.
Rich states that the popular belief that pre-Columbian America was a "pristine wilderness" is false. This destructive myth is based upon essentially racist stereotypes that reduce the highly successful plant and animal husbandry of Native American rural societies to the instinctual behavior of wildlife or "noble savages."
Native American elders assert that their ancestors carefully tended their landscape-scale gardens, and that it was the colonists who let the weeds take over. "The white man ruined this country," said Southern Sierra Miwok elder Jim Rust. "It's turned back to wilderness."
There are no "spontaneous Edens" on planet Earth. The New World Gardens of Eden, mindlessly exploited by the European conquerors, were the product of the wisdom, hard work, and the perseverance of millions of Native Americans over thousands of years, Rich explains.
In a similar manner, today, we must understand that degraded landscapes will not magically regenerate if simply left alone, nor will the climate spontaneously stabilize itself. Regeneration requires human intervention.
A wealth of biodiversity, still preserved today
Today, indigenous farmers remain the custodians of an immeasurable wealth of biodiversity.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems report, in the Little Colorado River Watershed, farming has been an unbroken cultural tradition for at least 4,200 years. The Navajo, Zuni, Apache, Hopi, Paiute and Tewa have cultivated the most diverse annual crop assemblage in the New World north of the Tropic of Cancer. Farmers have managed the same fields and terrace gardens for centuries.
Where the history of indigenous peoples is scarred by forced migrations, saving and recovering seeds has a special importance.
Sacred Seed in Nebraska is working to revive varieties of the Four Sisters—corn, beans, squash and sunflowers. Founder Taylor Keen is a member of both the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska, and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and he is inspired by each tribe’s history.
During the 19th century, the Omaha were prolific corn-growers and traders. The tribe was able to almost entirely provide for itself at a time when others relied on provisions supplied by federal agencies. White traders plundered and commercialized Omaha seeds. Recently, a couple packets of Omaha pumpkin seeds turned up at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, which had once served as a trading post frequented by tribal people. A book written by the former proprietor of the trading post, a man named Oscar Will, documented the planting practices of the Native people with whom he traded.
To honor his Cherokee roots, Keen plants beans in his garden. He says:
“As a Cherokee as well, to grow these beautiful beans that sustained us on the Trail of Tears is more than moving.”
In 2017, the Cherokee Nation distributed 3,784 packages of heirloom seeds to tribal citizens. In 2018, the available heirloom seeds include Cherokee White Eagle corn, Cherokee Long Greasy beans, Georgia Candy Roaster squash, Buffalo gourds and native plants such as Buttonbush, Possum Grape and Sunchoke.
Minnesota-based Native Harvest, founded by the Ojibwe, works “to continue, revive and protect” the tribe’s native seeds, heritage crops, naturally-grown fruits, animals, wild plants and traditions.
You can help these and other efforts to regenerate Native American food sovereignty by asking your representatives in Congress to support the Tribal Food and Housing Security Act and the Native Farm Bill Coalition’s “Regaining Our Future” policy proposals.