Food Soverignty

“I don’t think we can call ourselves sovereign if we can’t feed ourselves."

–Paul ‘Sugarbear’ Smith, Oneida 

fs5.jpgThe focus of our Food Security granting program is to support Native-led efforts in food sovereignty through both re granting, and by leveraging intellectual support through resources, trainings, speaking, and consultations with grassroots organizations and tribal governments in the drafting of tribal food policy.

Please see our publications on food security in our resources section, including:

What is Food Sovereignty?

The ability to feed your people. Let us say that. This could be through your own production, or this could be through trade, just so you’re happy with it, and it’s working out for you. This is where we probably need to be, but, for sure, we aren’t there now.

Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as Indigenous peoples, and one of the most sure-footed ways to restore our relationship with the world around us. 

 Let’s review. 

FS1.jpgWhen the Europeans came to America, they brought no land with them, and very little food. The incidence of scurvy, diphtheria, and a whole litany of diseases, many of them linked to malnutrition, was overwhelming. We fed them, and taught them how to eat, here. Native people gave the world some big food – corn and potatoes make up a huge percentage of world food calories and nutrition, and represent immense value per-acre.

Our cultural knowledge as Indigenous people is invaluable. The Anishinaabe alone were the northern most corn growers in the world, pushing corn about a hundred miles north of Winnipeg, and our agro-biodiversity abounded – that means, many varieties. And overall, Indigenous peoples developed some 8,000 varieties of corn, not to mention everything from pumpkins to chocolate.  All pretty cool stuff.



We need to tell our own stories, and educate our own people.

fs3.jpgColonialism messes up things. That’s how it goes. In fact, as Shawnee scholar Steven Newcomb once pointed out to me, the word colonialism has at its’ root the same word as “colon”. In other words, it means to digest—colonialism is the digestion of one people by another – in military, social, political, economic and food system terms. 

Welcome to 520 AC.. After Colonization. We are now a terribly dependent people, or peoples. By and large, we have ceased to farm our own foods and lands, all, a part of a logical consequence of theft, genocide, allotment, boarding schools, land alienation, and the lack of access to basic capital for even small scale farming – as evidenced in the Keeps Eagle lawsuit.  We are net importers of food, and it’s costly. And even some of our largest tribal food enterprises- like the Navajo Agricultural Products Inc, produces food, not for Navajos, but for markets elsewhere., as does Gila River, two of our largest producers. Thousands of acres of our tribal lands are leased out to non-Indian producers who ship across the world.  And, in the meantime, we’re not looking good. On the White Earth reservation alone, a full third of the client population has diabetes. 

So, what is the solution?

growing.jpgThis is the happy part. It turns out that our ancestors had it right, and my father had it right. My father used to say to me, “Winona, I don’t want to hear your philosophy,  if you can’t grow corn….”  Now that’s an interesting thing to say to your child. Well, I thought about it, and thought about it some more. And then, I decided to grow corn. And, of course, along the way, I became an economist who wanted to look at the systems which support sovereignty and self determination, like our economic systems.




You're looking at a few important concepts:

  • First, protect your ecosystem, in our case on the White Earth reservation, we protected wild rice from getting genetically engineered by the University of Minnesota. Our tribal chairmen said, “When we signed those treaties, and secured protection for our wild rice, we weren’t talking about getting some rice in a bag…we meant a lake. We have a right to the land, water, and air that our food came from and that needs to be protected by sovereign nations."
  • Then, there’s the economics. By producing food, you lose some of the need to purchase, which reduces the instability of your dollar in a time of climate change and rising oil prices.  A small garden plot (I like those raised beds) might put up 750 dollars worth of food. This is a good thing, if you want to eat.
  • Then, you get a local economy, if you work it right. One of my favorite Amish families makes around $l0,000 a year on their three acres of gardens. Our organizations and families probably are worth around $l,000 of this for our Farm to School Programs here on the reservation and those big extended family houses). Not bad

That is why you need a tribal food policy. From soil, or lake to table, or seed to plate, tribes need to take jurisdiction over production, genetic integrity, processing, purchasing, and composting -- if we want to be cyclical about it. Now consider this: if we moved from industrialized agriculture to relocalized organic agriculture, we could sequester about one-quarter of the carbon moving into the air, which is destroying our glaciers, oceans, forests and lands. 


Muskoday Organic Growers Co-op, Saskatchewan 

Manoominikewag - White Earth Reservation

Winona's story

winonasstory.jpg"Take my house for example. We’re an extended family of ten or so people at various times. This is a two deer, one pig, a hundred fish, twenty or thirty chickens, ten ducks, meat household. This is complimented by a hundred and fifty pounds of wild rice, about the same of corn, about 200 pounds of potatoes,  berries, maple syrup, piles of squash, and a lot of canned goods.  Honestly.  

 We grow that, harvest that and trade that.

I don’t grow potatoes because Hugh Duffner, this cool old German guy grows them way better than I do. I don’t mess with chickens because the Amish are good at that. I even get raw milk from some farmers sometimes. I do grow smaller vegetables, and harvest a lot of other awesome things. Now, this means work, this means using a hoe, which I always have to tell teenagers is a garden implement. And, this means, I can keep my waistline somewhere I might be able to find it, on a good day. This has, in short, health implications, which are good. Knock on wood.

Now aggregate that to 9, 000 tribal members hanging around White Earth, and you’re talking a few really important concepts. Our plan on this is to grow as much corn as our ancestors did, and the foods our ancestors grew. It turns out, these foods are, roughly twice as high in protein, and two to three times more nutritious than anything you can get at the store. Them, sell locally to create a multiplier, and then sell your surplus to people who think your Native food is cool - that’s what we do at Native Harvest. 

What’s the value of this? Well start with, it’s intangible. Health is awesome. It’s also awesome to grow out a squash that’s been around for 800 years or so, or some corn that might last in a time of climate change, because it’s not a mono crop, is short of stalk, drought, and frost resistant.  Not bad, those ancestors. Then think about how we are restoring some things which are sacred, and hopefully keeping them from getting genetically altered – like our battles on wild rice here, and international battles to protect corn, our mother grain. Add to this the idea of some sense of economic stability into the future, as we get some control over our health, food and energy systems, all inter-related, and we might be tribal governments who can plan for seven generations ahead…