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Report: Healthy, Traditional Foods Essential for Tribes’ Survival

Tribal sovereignty means food sovereignty, according to a report, "Feeding Ourselves," recently released by Echo Hawk Consulting.

Tribal sovereignty means food sovereignty, according to a report, Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities, recently released by Echo Hawk Consulting.

“The ability to govern ourselves is directly related to our ability to produce healthy food for ourselves. The traumas that tribal communities have gone through associated with removal, allotment and assimilation cut many tribes off from their traditional homelands and food,” says report co-author Wilson Pipestem, founder of Pipestem Law and Ietan Consulting. He is an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and an Osage headright holder.

The health status of American Indian/Alaska Native children shows the urgent need for improving the quality and source of foods available to them. “This really becomes a question about survival, not just individually but of our tribal nations,” says Echo Hawk Consulting President Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee. “Our young ones are not healthy. These are our future leaders, our future culture keepers. The average lifespan for someone diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes can be as little as 25 years. We’re starting to see kids being diagnosed at the age of 4. A whole generation is facing really serious complications from food-related diseases.”

“Feeding Ourselves” report cover artwork and photo by Ryan Red Corn.

Data from the National Congress of American Indian’s Center for Diabetes Research and Policy Research Center indicates that more than 80 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native adults are overweight or obese and roughly 50 percent of AI/AN children are not at a healthy weight, according to the report.

One out of every two AI/AN children can be expected to develop Type 2 diabetes as things are going now. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and myriad other health problems are directly related to food.

Most American Indians live in food deserts. “A community needs a grocery store every 10 miles to ensure some measure of food security, yet there are only 10 full service grocery stores in the entirety of the Navajo Nation, which sprawls over 27,413 square miles—and the Navajo Nation is not alone in this problem,” according to the report.

RELATED: What Is a Food Desert? Do You Live In One? 23.5 Million In This Country Do

But there are some proven approaches to beginning to solve this problem, and Feeding Ourselves details many of them. From the Cheyenne River Youth Project, a 2-acre, naturally grown, pesticide-free garden that provides snacks and meals to youth, to Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems to the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative to farm-to-school projects to initiatives led by tribal colleges and universities, tribes all across the country are figuring out how to provide their members with nutritious, traditional foods. Echo Hawk says, “There is always a [focus on the] immensity of challenges [in Indian Country]. We wanted to uplift all of the positive work that is happening all across Indian country.”

Cheyenne River Youth Project

Guided by traditional and spiritual principles, the Cheyenne River Youth Project has incorporated the traditional Lakota values of generosity, spirituality, wisdom, respect, courage, honesty and patience into the development of its 2-acre, naturally grown, pesticide-free Winyan Toka Win “Leading Lady” in the Lakota language) garden.

RELATED: Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Garden Evolving Into a Micro Farm

Change, however, requires funding, and just as much of Indian Country is a food desert, it is also a credit desert. Financing is needed for everything from training producers in how to meet food safety requirements to the construction of infrastructure for processing food produced on reservation lands.

For example, when tribes lack food aggregation, storage, processing and transportation assets, most of the food grown on Indian lands (either by Native farmers or on land leased to non-Native producers) goes off reservation as soon as it is harvested and ends up in the very food stream that is contributing to the ill health of Native children. “In the report,” says Echo Hawk, “we wanted also to highlight the need for resources to make sustainable changes. We need [banks , other financial institutions, the federal government and foundations] to invest in food production on Indian lands. And we need to make sure Indian people are at the table in discussions about food systems.”

The time for food sovereignty on Native lands is now, say report authors, in part because the need is so great and in part because recent federal legislation has opened the door to new possibilities. One of the most important changes is a provision in the Agricultural Act of 2014 that directs the United States Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of tribal governments managing all feeding programs on their reservations. “That’s a real game changer,” says co-author Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. “Tribal governments contract many other programs, such as education and health care, from the federal government, but they have never had the authority to manage feeding programs, such as WIC, SNAP, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, and afterschool, elder, and school lunch programs.

Thosh Collins

Wild rice with berries, another traditional and healthy dish.

The report was commissioned by the American Heart Association and its Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AHA. Echo Hawk explains that the AHA asked for the report in order to more effectively develop policy recommendations to reduce food-related diseases in Indian Country.

NCAI President Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish, said in a statement, “Feeding Ourselves is an excellent resource for tribal communities to see the extent of the food-related issues in Indian Country and begin to develop tribally-driven solutions using the information in the report and our collective wisdom to solve them. I highly recommend this report as required reading for all of Indian Country.”

Read the reports executive summary online.