Indigenous food sovereignty movement gains traction

'Indigenous communities, they were food sovereign, everything they did was a community-based food system, and these were disrupted'

Andi Murphy, a member of the Navajo Nation and creator of the podcast Toasted Sister, uses her platform to express her belief in the importance of Indigenous foods and food sovereignty.

“This movement is the reason I started this podcast,” Murphy said. “You’re seeing all of these revitalization initiatives and empowerment initiatives within food and food sovereignty and entrepreneurship with culture, with sustainability and with food.”

Throughout Indian country, members of the Native community have banded together to share messages about food sovereignty and the importance of eating traditional and sustainable diets.

According to the Declaration of Nyéléni, food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

The movement began in 1996 at the World Food Summit in Rome, Italy according to the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. However, over the past ten years, there’s been an increase in the visibility of Indigenous people in the food sovereignty movement. That includes podcasts, businesses and media platforms dedicated to the issue of traditional diets in mainstream media.

Bee on buckwheat plant - by Lyric Aquino
A bee resting on a buckwheat plant in Wozupi gardens on Sept.17, 2019. (Photo by Lyric Aquino)

Despite the efforts to encourage Indigenous people to reclaim their traditional diets, there’s been a lack of confidence in the Native community to cook traditional foods. Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, thinks colonialism is the main factor.

“I look at my own family history…Within 100 years, why did we lose so much? That was a big part of the study [on local Indigenous foods] of really understanding the true histories of colonization because it’s obviously something that’s not taught about,” Sherman said. “It became more than just cooking, more than just about food. It really became more about bringing awareness to Indigenous peoples and the land.”

That’s why Sherman is starting what he’s calling the Indigenous Food Lab and a new brick and mortar restaurant that will feature some of the signature dishes Some of those dishes include bison, wild rice and other Indigenous foods. Sherman has been working in the community in Minneapolis for more than five years.

“Indigenous communities, they were food sovereign, everything they did was a community-based food system, and these were disrupted,” Sherman said.

While the discussion of food sovereignty moved through the media, people took action in their own communities for the movement. Some of those who took action include the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community in Prior Lake.

Lori Watso, a concerned resident, created a community garden called Wozupi, meaning a place to plant seeds. Watso, who is no longer involved, wanted to offer Indigenous families and community members a chance to eat organic, locally grown produce native to the area. Featuring produce such as cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, broccoli, cauliflower and more, the garden provides community members with healthy options for produce as opposed to options such as fast food, non-local and non-seasonal produce.

Apples - by Lyric Aquino
Apples not available for consumption in a pile to compost at Wozupi gardens on Sept. 17, 2019. (Photo by Lyric Aquino)

“A majority of our food goes to Mazopiya [a health food store]. We do also provide stuff to the casino restaurants and the tribe runs its own daycare and the tribal education department, so some of the food goes there,” Victoria Ranva, the land manager of Wozupi gardens said. “In terms of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) right now, it’s less than 20 families. But this is a huge jump from our initial year.”

Ranva has noticed changes in the way people consume food and the way they select their products.

“There has been a major change in where food comes from and then the quality and the ability of that food and to provide good health for the people,” Ranva said.

Like Sherman, Mariah Gladstone, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and founder of Indigikitchen, believes there’s an ongoing misconception of Indigenous diets and food that was introduced to Native Americans during colonization.

Mariah Gladstone and Sean Sherman - Lyric Aquino
Mariah Gladstone (right) and Sean Sherman (left) speak to a panel at the Annual Native American Nutrition Conference in Lake Prior Minnesota on Sept. 17, 2019. (Photo by Lyric Aquino)

“There seems to be this idea like ‘Oh Native people just found out about white flour and they got really into fry bread and they forgot about their traditional foods,’” Gladstone said.

Sherman uses his platform to give Indigenous people a chance to eat traditional foods, try traditional recipes and encourages others to do the same.

“It’s about thinking about ‘How can we bring this food base that needs to be here and return it to Indigenous communities,” Sherman said. “So they have access to it.’”

As of late, members of the food sovereignty movement have seen an engagement in their communities and audiences.

“[We are] starting to see a real interest in where your foods come from and wanting to learn about the issues connecting to it,” Murphy said.

Although the food sovereignty movement is geared towards the Indigenous, Gladstone believes nutrition and sustainable eating is important for all.

“Everyone should be eating Native foods,” Gladstone said. “Everyone should be thinking about how to locally and sustainably source their diets.”

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Lyric Aquino, Tewa, is a fellow Native American Journalism Fellowship and a student at Kent State University.

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