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On Indigenous People’s Day, a Look at the Movement to Revive Native Foodways and How Western Science Might Support—For a Change

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By Ricardo Salvador

"Tribes are not sovereign unless they can feed themselves," noted Ross Racine, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. This is such a brutal fact that that the destruction of Native foodways was used by the U.S. government to effectively weaken, destroy and remove Native people from their ancestral lands during the period of Western colonization, genocide, expansion and cultural undermining that ran from the 17th into the present century (in the form of "Food Distribution Programs," largely the food that has made many Native communities both dependent and among the sickest in the world.)


It may be a legitimate question to some why a scientific organization wants to support dismantlement of the social inequities built into our food systems. Food and food production are fundamentally important to Native communities' health, well-being, economic resilience, cultural heritage and self-preservation. This means that restoring food sovereignty to Native communities requires the re-introduction of indigenous food production, distribution practices and infrastructure, in concert with the re-valuation of traditional ecological knowledge that has long been sidelined from Western notions of science.

The legacy of social and racial inequities woven throughout our food systems cannot be addressed without acknowledging the history of violent displacement and marginalization of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and the appropriation of their land and resources. In its most intensive and intentional phase, during the 60-year period now known as "the Indian Wars," from 1830-1890, the federal government massacred tens of thousands of Native peoples and "removed" surviving communities to isolated "reservations." Entire ways of life and foodways were intentionally destroyed. Native communities were forced to become dependent on an exogenous food system that funneled the most unhealthful foodstuffs toward reservations and further eroded knowledge about native foods and their production and preparation. These were overt control measures, including strict federally imposed limits on fishing, foraging and hunting on Native lands. As a consequence of these measures, Native self-provisioning, traditional food knowledge and health were destroyed, and those communities now suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country and the world.

Indigenous methods of scientific inquiry have their best chance to find a home in our nation's "1994 Land-Grant Institutions"—colleges and universities established with federal resources to support research, education and extension related to food and agriculture. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), stated that these tribal colleges and universities TCUs "teach in a cultural context that [empowers] students by drawing on the strength of their peoples' history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions." Yet research at TCUs is supported by a NIFA funding stream that is entirely separate from, and inferior to, that of other land grant institutions. Therefore, in recent years, a coalition of tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits have come together to demand increased federal funding for NIFA Tribal Programs. In addition, the pressure from dominant culture is to emulate the pattern and ostensive "success" of agricultural approaches that have been developed on the basis of western science. Instead, the leadership and autonomy of Native people must be acknowledged and supported to recapture and reconstruct their traditional knowledge of agriculture, gathering and food, together with their connection to health and wellbeing, and to integrate that knowledge with Western approaches in a manner of their own choosing.

The White Earth Food Recovery Project

One of the more significant things I ever did while on the faculty of the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University happened when a Native friend, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe), told me about a project she was involved with to revive the foodways of her father's people at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She told me how they knew that corn was central to the polycultural food system of their ancestors, and that they knew that to recover their physical, cultural and economic health they had to start by reconstructing their food system with their native species. But these had been lost to colonization and cultural destruction. She asked whether I knew how to get hold of seeds that were as close as possible to Ojibwe corn.

I called my buddy, Mark Millard, a geneticist who was the maize curator for the USDA's Plant Introduction Center just down the road from my office. I still vividly remember the chills I felt when I repeated Winona's question to Mark and he responded: "How close do you want to get to White Earth Ojibwe corn?" It turned out that in the 1920s, the USDA had collected seed of that very corn and dutifully reproduced it in the intervening 80 years. There was soon a package of precious seed on its way to Winona and the White Earth food recovery project was on its way.

Such efforts to reclaim food sovereignty as a way to recover health, in all its dimensions, among the nation's survivors of a traumatic campaign of Native American genocide is gaining momentum, and particularly so among the TCU network, known colloquially as "Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities," or even more eccentrically, the "1994s." Ironies are plentiful in explanation. As Europeans colonized North America from the east coast westward, they established infrastructure and institutions to facilitate their settlement project.

Almost everyone has at least a glancing acquaintance with the fact that establishment of the transcontinental railroad was a keystone of this project. This was financed by a "land-grant scheme" whereby the federal government killed and removed Native inhabitants to "clear the way" for settlers, then gave itself permission to apportion the "empty land" (the popularly beloved first-person chronicler of these developments, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famously described her family's entry into today's Kansas with the words: "There were no people here, only Indians.") The federal "land-grants" were used by railroad companies not only for right-of-way but for sale to raise cash to support their operations. Similarly, the federal government "granted" land to states to establish the colleges that were to generate knowledge for white farmers to subdue the prairies and other conquered lands so that both Native people and vegetation could be replaced with more "productive" alternatives.

The resulting institutions, today's "Land Grant Universities," thereby have a complicated history. In the history of education, they were the first established expressly so that a higher education was accessible to the salt of the earth, and was no longer the exclusively for society's privileged, but it was also clear who these colonizer institutions were for. They were not for Natives, and they were not for African Americans, both of whom were the victims and subordinates of colonization. It is for this reason that a completely separate network was subsequently established to "serve" the African-American population of farmers and rural citizens, now known as the "1890 Land Grants." It is important to remember that this underscores exclusion than rather social equity, since they were established to reinforce that African Americans were not welcome (in the Southern U.S.) within the exclusive hallways of the original Land Grant universities (now known as "the 1862s," for the year their authorizing legislation was passed.) It will surprise no one that compared with the 1862 Universities, the Crown Jewels of the Land Grant University system, the 1890 and 1994 counterparts are egregiously underfunded.

What Must "Science" Now Do?

Which brings us to the "1994 Land Grants." It took that long for the federal government to recognize the exclusion of the continent's first peoples from its tradition of public support for higher education. But that support historically had been in an effort to destroy Native life, knowledge and culture, acknowledging it only as an item of study. For Native people, of course, the object is instead to revive the thriving worldview and knowledge system that sustained their forebears for millennial generations.

So this is where the federal government is now with this project: The federal government funds research, education, and extension activities at 1994 institutions through the Tribal College Research Grant Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program is to help 1994 institutions become centers of scientific inquiry and learning for remote and rural reservation communities, with an emphasis on research questions generated by Native community interests. Projects funded through this program may help a tribe "improve bison herd productivity, discover whether traditional plants can play a role in managing diabetes, or control invasive species," among other areas of emphasis. Alongside the research program, the Tribal College Extension Program supports informal, community-based learning, which may include farmer education, youth development, and rural entrepreneurship.

In the summer of 2017, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—made up of 22 tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits—published a report assessing risks and opportunities for Native communities in the 2018 farm bill. The authors acknowledge that tribal organizations have "struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills," and present the report as a springboard to amplify tribal voices in the federal food and agriculture policy process. The report's recommendations, include increased funding for extension services for tribes, earmarked funding for tribal groups within existing NIFA research grant programs, and new research programs at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, that focus on the important and increasing role that traditional knowledge plays in the environmental, natural resources, ecological, food science, nutrition, and health research.

Science is a human endeavor. It does not exist without humans, and it serves the purposes of humans. It served the colonizing and genocidal project of the U.S. in several ways. The Union of Concerned Scientists seeks to put science in service of the project to recover the dignity and viability of lifeways that respect and sustain Native wisdom and healthful, thriving cultures. For this reason, my team and I will be working to establish a relationship with leaders, faculty and fellow scientists at the nation's Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and to learn how me might become part of a project that aligns our science and intentions with a completely different direction and outcome than the perverted precedent we all must thoughtfully reflect on each October on Indigenous People's Day.

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