Food Justice: Native People Taking Action to Restore Ancestral Practices and Ways of Life

For thousands of years, before the countries of Canada, United States, Mexico, and South America ever existed, millions of indigenous people inhabited and developed complex societies and systems on this continent. Native people lived in harmony with their environment, which sustained them spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. For so many Native nations, food was embedded in all aspects of life – ceremony, family, community, medicine, language and well-being.

Today in the United States there are 567 Native American nations and 334 reservations located in 35 states, each with their own language, customs, ancestry, traditions and foods. As a trusted partner and resource to Indian country, Partnership with Native Americans (PWNA) is investing in Native communities’ initiatives to increase access to healthier foods, build community gardens and develop the skills to prepare nutritious meals. Through these partnerships, PWNA has learned about the growing food justice movement in reservation communities it serves in the Southwest and Northern Plains.

What is food justice? According to one definition, “’Food Justice’ is communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food … fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate, and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals.”

About a year ago, PWNA supported a reservation-based project focused on building an Ancestral Garden. The Ancestral Garden project was developed to engage Native youth and build on tribal community knowledge of ancestral foods, the impact of these foods at a holistic level (spiritual, mental, physical and emotional), and the connection of the land to the people and the people to the land – a clear example of Native food justice.

Teaching youth from a tribal perspective – including stories, the knowledge of food, the role of food in the community and its impact on individuals – and sharing the stories and the names of the foods in the Native language is at the heart of the Ancestral Garden project. With continued support from PWNA, preparations are underway to enter into a second phase of the project that will reach even more youth.

Recently, PWNA sponsored a healthy food session with a Native chef who teaches Native cuisine along with the food justice paradigm. The session opened with a lecture on the history of Native foods and the importance of this history and its impact on the well-being of individuals and communities. The Native participants at the training, guided by the chef, spent most of the time preparing and tasting healthy, local Native foods, and it was unanimous: Native foods are healthy and delicious!!!

This Native cuisine session was held at the tribal communities’ diabetes prevention program, fitting for such an event since Native American people have the highest diabetes rates of any ethnic group in the world. The Native chef included in her lecture how this life-endangering issue (diabetes) transpired – a result of a people being stripped of their way of life, forced onto reservations and given commodities such as lard, sugar, flour and other processed foods. A tidbit shared by the Native chef is that fry bread is not an ancestral or traditional food – it is considered a survival and oppression food. When the people were put on reservations and not allowed to practice their ways of life, including hunting, gathering and growing food, the processed food given was all that was available – eat it or die. Thus, fry bread was born out of need.

Native food justice is about embracing food as holistic, as medicine – restorative and life-changing – and more than the physical experience of shopping, dicing and eating. Food justice is good for all.

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