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Reclaiming Our Children Through Food

Our histories are bursting with examples of how tribal nations have fought and sacrificed for continued existence in the face of powerful forces that sought to eliminate and assimilate American Indians. We have survived through federal policies of extermination to forced relocation to assimilation. Today, while we take some comfort in the current era of self-determination and extend the arms of tribal self-governance, we continue to watch “the fight” diligently in courtrooms throughout the nation for independence, land, language, and tribal nationhood. Yet, some of our most prolific warriors are educators, food service professionals, and agriculturalist who understand nationhood begins with minds, hearts, and “taste pallets” of our children, those professionals who understand that how and what we eat, in so many ways, defines our world. While politics, theory, and economics is thought to be the meat of a college education, our young leaders are being sculpted and formed from birth with some of the most formative years to be had in the early years of pre-school and elementary. These formative years are spent in pre-school and elementary schools where tribal nations seem to have the least amount of control, and coincidently, where children develop their food tastes that influence their entire lifetime, entire civilizations from economy to law.

Many people celebrate federal agendas such as “Pre-school for all” that seeks “to expand high-quality pre-school for all,” as stated in Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2013, and is seen as “one of the smartest investments” that the US can make to ensure a productive citizenry. Instead of allowing the formation of the critical cultural base through socialization that is fundamental to our cultural identity that usually is formed through caretakers such as parents and grandparents in the crucial first few years in life, we can now place our children in school programs that begin their indoctrination into the American education system at birth and to age three. While there are far too few truly Tribally controlled schools, there are 183 Bureau of Indian Education schools. BIE’s mission is to provide quality education opportunities from early childhood through life in accordance with a tribe’s needs for cultural and economic well-being, in keeping with the wide diversity of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages as distinct cultural and governmental entities. While its not ideal to have government controlled education systems such as BIE, they are suppose to fair far better in response to tribal needs than the state controlled or school-district controlled education systems. Those state controlled or local school district schools are by far the most numerous institutions serving Tribal children and those schools may or may not partner or develop good relationships with Tribes because, quite simply, they are typically not legally required to do so, despite our current era of the self-determination and self-governance.

Perhaps one of the most critical formations of identity is the attachment to certain food. For indigenous people, our food sources are physical manifestations of a relationship between person and earth that has developed over hundreds, if not, thousands of years. Food reminds of where we come from and, in so many ways, determines our future. So when we look at the majority of food served in tribal schools, we see few, if any, of the mainstay food items that are so vital to our community life. In fact, the celebrated “Let’s Move Initiative” that is so widely celebrated and is authorized by the Health Hungry Fee Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA 2010), a federal legislative act that, among other things, seeks to provide healthy food in our schools. Yet, funding is funneled and directed at States NOT Tribes. With funding disseminated through state education systems which may or may not be working with tribal partners. Then tribes are at the mercy of state agencies and local school districts for school lunch program funding and even processes and requirements which to hire school food worker personnel. With such indirect control over the schools that serve and educate tribal children, there are a few brave tribal educators who campaign for and win school board positions to solidify the voice of a tribal community in school leadership. Or even those brave leaders who seek to operate their own schools such as the Keres Children’s Learning Center (KCLC), the nation’s first American Indian Montessori language-immersion school. As these enter into an education system that is wholly meant to create a uniform “American” citizen, its no feat to advocate for lessons and support networks that allow for tribal citizenship learning.

Likewise, the tribal farmers and ranchers throughout the nation who have managed to keep farming and ranching despite the climatic changes, economic hardships, land issues and who still manage to produce food are often left out of our school cafeterias. School cafeterias are paying customers and often the closest and largest food purchasers in our most rural tribal communities. Yet, few or any local tribal farmers have been able to penetrate the closed doors of local cafeterias because of the sheer bureaucracy that a farmer must encounter trying to get products in their local school. Most school districts privatize their food suppliers under the auspices of cost-savings district wide. So in turn, the foods that often instill and remind us with our cultural roots are far too often replaced with over-processed foods that can easily fit in small trays. Once kids are fed these foods day after day the need and tastes for traditional foods that connects our pallets with those of our grandparents, remind of us the stories of our creation, and keeps us connected to age-old value and principles becomes trivial.

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The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act is meant to allow for farm to school programs and has language that includes tribal organizations in funding mechanisms. So much like those brave educators who tred down the road for School board election seats, those brave farmers and ranchers who are fighting to get into local tribal schools are the true couriers of tribal self-determination, our warriors armed with hoes, rakes, and dirt caked boots. Both sets of people are trying to penetrate an education system that highly impenetrable despite the gains tribes have made in many other fields, except in the perhaps, the most important in reclaiming the education our own children.

The president is quoted as saying, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on-.” But in the grand scheme of things, what is the real cost to Indian communities, language, and health?

Vena A-dae Romero was born and raised in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. She is a LLM graduate of University of Arkansas Food and Agricultural Law Program, JD graduate of Arizona State University, and BA graduate from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She is a consultant for First Nations Development Institute.