Preserving Native American Food Culture

Grassroots food movements help revive the dwindling Native American food culture.
By Tanya Denckla Cobb
June 2014
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Jonathan Yazze sets up fencing in the arid landscape of his farm. When his father, a well-known medicine man, died a few years earlier, in the Navajo tradition Yazze rested his father’s fields — literally leaving plants, gear, and tools where they lay — for two years. His farm, in the back country of the Navajo Reservation, came back to life in the spring of 2011.
Photo by Jason Houston
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Over the last decade a food revolution has taken place: more and more people have changed they way they eat and what they eat, turning increasingly to local food sources. In Reclaiming Our Food (Storey Publishing, 2011) by Tanya Denckla Cobb tells the stories of people across America who are finding new ways to grow, process and distribute food for their own communities. The following excerpt from "Food Heritage" discusses several grassroots food movements that aim to revive Native American food culture.

You can purchase this book in the Capper’s Farmer store: Reclaiming Our Food.

Reviving Native American Food Culture

Farmers of the Navajo and Hopi

In the high desert plateau of northern Arizona, the Navajo and Hopi people tended gardens and livestock for hundreds of years, using inventive dryland farming techniques. But over the past century, as bureaucratic policies have redistributed land and water, and as young people have left the reservation and Western culture moved in, the once thriving farmlands have dried up, and with them have gone not just age-old agricultural knowledge but an entire cultural tradition. Here, though, in a place where — perhaps as a microcosm of larger society — the growing disconnect between people and land threatens the basic foundations of community, we find oases of growth and hope.

One spark of the grassroots movement to reclaim tribal food and agricultural traditions is Navajo rancher Rose Marie Williams, who is working to resurrect her grandfather’s farm, running cattle and sheep and tending fields of corn, melon, squash, and other crops, with the help of her husband and children. She is an outspoken advocate of traditional Navajo farming techniques, and she passes along her enthusiasm and knowledge at local schools, conferences, and community meetings.

Williams is not alone in her mission to preserve tribal knowledge and build community resilience on the reservation. Jonathan Yazzie, another Navajo farmer, whose family’s long farming heritage goes back for generations, is now working with DINÉ, Inc., a nonprofit using education and community outreach to support Navajo communities and revive tribal heritage, including the techniques of dryland farming. Like Williams and Yazzie, Carl Honeyestewa, a retired U.S. marine and one of the dwindling number of Hopi farmers, practices traditional dryland farming methods, keeping his tribe’s agricultural legacy alive in a time when the entire Hopi culture is endangered. And the North Leupp Family Farm, a Navajo community farming project not unlike many others around the country, works to rebuild connections between people and land, engaging communities in growing food to supplement the family table, finding respite in gardening, and rediscovering a sense of place.

As is the case in the wider world, the Navajo and Hopi are experiencing a loss of interest in farming among youths, coupled with loss of farmland, loss of farming knowledge, and loss of agriculture-based traditions. In both worlds, people are increasingly distanced — if not alienated — from a physical connection to the land and understanding of where food comes from. These pioneers of the Navajo and Hopi, like the leaders of grassroots food projects across the country, are leading the way in shoring up, rebuilding, and building anew the practices and systems that make up a strong, healthy local food culture.

Preserving Culture through Native Seeds 

Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative with research by Jessica Ray

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative is a grassroots Native American food movement centered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation’s capital. It seeks to preserve Mvskoke food and agriculture traditions and enhance the health and well-being of its six tribes: the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Yuchi. It operates numerous programs — community gardening, cooking and gardening workshops, written manuals, a heritage seed bank, a farmers’ market, and special events — all to enable Muscogee people and their neighbors to provide for their food and health needs now and in the future through sustainable agriculture, economic development, community involvement, and cultural and educational programs.

Just as community food programs are taking hold around the nation, Native American communities are taking the initiative to launch their own food projects to revive their agriculture and food traditions. And because Native American agriculture and food tend to be tightly interwoven with cultural identity, these projects are teaching much more.

In Okmulgee County, Oklahoma, the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, founded in 2005, is seeking to preserve cultural traditions of the Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Yuchi, for whom growing, preserving, and using traditional foods plays an important role in cultural activities. Starting with a community food assessment of 17 communities, MFSI learned that a major community interest and concern was in traditional foods. This led to one of their activities, sponsored by the Taos Economic Development Corporation: buying fishing licenses for a fishing expedition, followed by a fish fry. Since then MFSI has expanded to numerous activities and hands-on workshops, including installing gardens at people’s homes to allow them to begin growing their own food.

One of MFSI’s most difficult but important challenges is to find, acquire, and begin saving traditional seeds, as traditional crops are a key part of their cultural heritage. Vicky Karhu, executive director of MFSI, herself a longtime organic vegetable gardener and commercial grower, describes how someone happened to find a native Indian pumpkin at a roadside stand, and starting with just that one, the project was able to grow eight hundred more pumpkins. It continues to save the seed from this rediscovered heirloom variety in a seed bank for preserving and restoring endangered seeds that are culturally linked to Native American gardens. Another success has been the project’s ability to rescue from near extinction a particular corn known as sofkee, used by the Mvskoke in a traditional dish of thick cracked-corn soup, often served with bits of meat or fish.

Karhu also says that, with the help of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, which supports social change movements around toxics and environmental justice, reproductive rights, and sustainable agricultural and food systems, MFSI has connected to minority farmers who have helped mentor their efforts. To assist the regeneration of Native American farmers, the project is developing a resource manual for farmers and ranchers and has established a local outlet for their produce: the first local farmers’ market in Okmulgee since the 1930s. MFSI says the market is providing fresh, affordable, locally produced fruits and vegetables to the community.

Running to Raise Awareness

Youths are also getting involved in MFSI’s efforts to raise awareness about the link between agriculture, food, health, and fitness literally by running. In an annual 420-mile relay, Muscogee National Walk/Run, youth cover the Muscogee (Creek) Nation boundaries, tracing the Opothle Yahola Trail (Trail of Tears). In other events the Muscogee youth participate in Spirit Walk/Runs and have joined with First Nations United, a nonprofit advocating prosperity and unity for First Nations people through redefining identity and connecting with the past to run another 290-mile relay along the Opothle Yahola Trail.

Just as runs are used throughout the United States to raise awareness about specific issues, running is a powerful way for Mvskoke youth to bring their communities together and to raise awareness about widespread diet-related diabetes, obesity, and addiction issues among Native peoples. Through running, youth have inspired other communities to participate, sometimes on the spur of the moment. For the Muscogee, Cassandra Thompson, staff for MFSI, writes that youth run to encourage Native Americans to reinvigorate their traditional agricultural practices, to provide for themselves locally grown fresh foods, and to live without diabetes and alcohol and drug addictions. To inspire their First Nation communities to remember an earlier time when they were healthier, physically fit, and growing and eating their traditional foods, the act of running the Opothle Yahola Trail connects youth with their heritage and builds understanding of how their historical relationship with the federal government continues to affect their community conditions and health today.

Changing the Food System

In 2009 MFSI began to work on establishing a tribal food policy council to make changes at a more systemwide level. Karhu envisions that the council will help set policies to preserve heritage seeds and food, such as banning genetically modified crops, which could infect and destroy the tribe’s heirloom seed diversity, and work to help more young people choose farming as a career.

One year later, on September 25, 2010, with a unanimous vote, the Muscogee Nation Food and Fitness Policy Council became the first tribal food policy council in the United States to be established by tribal law. The tribal resolution establishing the council affirms that the Muscogee were “traditionally excellent farmers, fishermen, and hunters and maintained a sustainable food system and were physically fit” and that the council is intended to address the “diet-related health problems and excessive dependency on outside sources of food.”

“It is unprecedented to have this level of collaboration between the tribal government and an independent community-based organization,” says Karhu, noting that the resolution establishing the council gives the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative two designated seats on the council, along with seats for the Indian Health Service; Muscogee Nation Division of Health; legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; farmers and ranchers; and other stakeholders. “This is big news and promises to be an avenue for real and lasting change to benefit all people living within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,” says Karhu.

The efforts of the council and the MFSI are about more than diet, says Rhonda Beaver, chief performance officer of the Muscogee Nation Division of Health. The programs that encourage people to revive heritage food gardening and cooking are also about “improving relationships with ourselves, and improving relationships with our food, so that we are overall healthier people.”

Traditional Foods Define a People

White Earth Land Recovery Project with research by Regine Kennedy and Ben Chrisinger

The White Earth Land Recovery Project is a grassroots Native American food movement that seeks to protect and encourage the food and agriculture heritage of the Anishinabeg (Ojibwe and Chippewa). Located in northern Minnesota, west of the Chippewa National Forest, the WELRP’s mission is to facilitate recovery of the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation while preserving and restoring traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency, and community development and strengthening spiritual and cultural heritage. As part of its effort to protect the Anishinabeg culture, WELRP is protecting and reviving native seeds, heritage crops, naturally grown fruits, animals, and wild plants, as well as traditions and knowledge of indigenous and land-based communities.

In Minnesota the White Earth Land Recovery Project, founded in 1989 by Winona LaDuke, has gone to court to protect the agriculture and food heritage of the Anishinabeg, also known as the Ojibwe or Chippewa. Wild rice, or manoomin, is not only a key part of the ecosystem of the northern Minnesota lakes region and considered a grain unique to northern North America, it is central to Anishinabeg culture and tradition, through its migration stories and prophecies. As a sacred food, “wild rice not only feeds the body, it feeds the soul,” writes LaDuke.

LaDuke suggests that the designation of wild rice as Minnesota’s official state grain in 1977 eventually led, ironically, to its endangerment. By the early 1980s, she writes, the University of Minnesota’s efforts to create domesticated versions of wild rice were so successful that domesticated rice grown in paddies had outstripped the native wild rice lake harvest. By the late 1980s more than 95 percent of the wild rice grown in the United States was domesticated; most was grown in California and harvested by machines — though marketed as authentic Minnesota lake wild rice, with pictures of Native Americans harvesting the rice in canoes with paddles.

LaDuke writes that lake wild rice and paddy rice are completely different, as illustrated by “a favorite joke among most connoisseurs of real wild rice,” which goes like this: “How to Cook Paddy Rice: Put rice and water in a pot with a stone. When the stone is soft the rice is almost done.” By contrast, lake-harvested wild rice has an “amazing aroma” and cooks in only 20 to 30 minutes.

In 1988 the Ojibwe filed suit (Wabizii v. Busch Agricultural Resources) against the agricultural research and manufacturing company that was marketing the paddy rice, claiming false and misleading advertising. They eventually settled out of court with an agreement that the nonnative rice would have to be labeled “paddy rice,” in lettering no less than half the size of the words “wild rice.” LaDuke writes that this was a small but important victory on a “slippery slope in the age of globalization.”

With the turn of the millennium, the tribe viewed the advent of genetically engineered rice and University of Minnesota mapping of wild rice DNA as a major threat, because of the possibility of contamination of native Minnesotan wild rice stock. Again the Ojibwe sought legal protection, this time from the Minnesota state legislature, which in May 2007 passed a bill (H2410/S2096) that protected native lake harvested wild rice with a two-year moratorium on genetic engineering of wild rice and also required the state to conduct a study of the environmental threats to natural wild rice stands and present recommendations to the legislature. One year later the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources submitted its report, along with six major recommendations, including that the state “increase intensive natural wild rice lake management efforts and accelerate the restoration of wild rice stands within its historic range.”

Reclaiming Culture

The White Earth Land Recovery Project is deeply engaged in other ways of preserving Anishinabeg food heritage and culture. LaDuke says that Native American populations suffer from the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world, and 30 percent of Minnesotan Native American adults have been diagnosed with diabetes.187 To combat this epidemic WELRP is providing food packages to Native American families with traditional foods such as buffalo meat, hominy corn, chokecherry or plum jelly (made with honey), maple syrup, and wild rice. The vision of WELRP is to reclaim the Anishinabeg land granted by an 1867 treaty but lost through the same process that caused many Native American and Hawaiian peoples to lose their land — a process of dividing the communal land into individual allotments for taxation and leading to forfeiture, without the people’s understanding or consent. 188 Slowly, through purchase or donation of one parcel at a time, WELRP has reclaimed more than 1,000 acres of its tribal land. Much of this land is sugar bush, which enables WELRP to collect and make another one of its traditional foods, maple syrup. Sturgeon are one more important player in the native ecosystem, and LaDuke describes how WELRP has collaborated with fisheries biologists to release more than 50,000 sturgeon into reservation lakes and streams. “They are returning to the White Earth Reservation,” writes LaDuke. “As they return, they teach us a lesson of connectivity and our own relationships with each other. That lesson, we believe, is…that we can begin undoing some of what we have done to each other and with the realization that we are all ultimately connected.”

Coming full circle, seeking wisdom from our past carries power for our future.

More from Reclaiming Our Food:

Polyface Farms: Ethics-Based Anti-Wall Street Contrarian Business Practices
Installing Backyard Gardens: The Seattle Urban Farm Company


Excerpted from Reclaiming Our Food (c) Tanya Denckla Cobb, photography by (c) Jason Houston used with permission from Storey Publishing. Purchase this book from our store: Reclaiming Our Food.


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