There are 58 million acres of agricultural land and nearly 61,500 farms and ranches in Indian country, yet Native communities are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and hunger. What’s more, forced relocation of tribal communities out of their ancestral homelands have left Native peoples more vulnerable to extreme weather from the deepening climate crisis. Tribes that are not federally recognized have additional stresses in facing these challenges, as they do not have access to critical federal and state support. But for tribal nations that are able to practice and engage in their traditional agricultural practices and rebuild their own food sovereignty, the narrative is shifting on what is possible for the health of the tribe and the climate.
Indigenous communities have used regenerative agriculture techniques and traditional hunting and fishing practices to nourish their communities since the beginning of human history. In recent decades, non-Native researchers and farmers have finally begun to acknowledge the ways that these practices benefit the environment, mitigate impacts of climate catastrophe, and even store carbon. Native management of buffalo on the Great Plains helped prairie grasses to grow roots many feet deep, which allowed the soil to retain water and be drought-resilient, as well as storing many tons of carbon underground. These principles are now used on farms and ranches that employ intensive rotational or managed grazing. Other Native practices including planting numerous crop varieties together and using culturally significant seed saving techniques to adapt Native seeds to be more drought resilient are now seen as key elements of regenerative agriculture. As these techniques have been more widely adopted by white farmers, it is critical that the communities who innovated them have access to land and other assets to be able to practice them themselves.
In drought-stricken New Mexico, the Zuni Pueblo tribe is employing a traditional regenerative agriculture technique called waffle gardens that help them grow with less water. In Alaska, a group called the Native Conservancy is educating Indigenous youth, strengthening food sovereignty, and restoring marine habitat through kelp farming. In Karuk Country, of northern California and southern Oregon, where increasingly devastating wildfires are the norm, an indigenous-led land and resource management and monitoring program has identified ways to bolster tribal practices while providing scientists with critical climate data.
State legislators have an important role to play in ensuring and supporting tribes’ food sovereignty. Lawmakers in Hawaii have introduced efforts to secure the right of native Hawaiians to engage in customary and traditional subsistence farming. Several resolutions have included participation of native Hawaiian communities in the state’s coastal planning and management of ecologically fragile coastline habitat using traditional practices and urged the city of Honolulu to streamline the permit process for restoration of native Hawaiian traditional fishponds. Washington State embedded food sovereignty into policy on salmon management and recovery and reinforced recognition of traditional hunting and treaty rights for salmon and steelhead.
For millennia, Native peoples stewarded this land with agricultural practices that worked in concert with nature, ensuring long-term sustainability and continued survival of both humans and the environment on which they depended. In stark contrast, today’s dominant agricultural systems — supported by two centuries of policy decisions — prioritize maximum yields at all costs. As the true extent of those costs becomes increasingly clear, we can learn a great deal about sustainability and survival from Native practices, and we can pass state policy that supports Native communities who are leading the way in making this change for their own communities and for everyone.
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- The Seed Keeper: A Novel by Diane Wilson
- The Native Musician and Poet Revitalizing Indigenous Food Sovereignty (Civil Eats)
If you are interested in working on food sovereignty policy in your state please reach out at [email protected]