Countering a problem as huge as food insecurity and poor nutrition in impoverished Native communities requires tenacity on numerous levels — federal, tribal, nonprofit and grassroots.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), which launched a $5 million campaign to promote indigenous nutrition and food access in 2015 called Seeds of Native Health, recently entered an historic partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) at the University of Arkansas School of Law to affect change on the ground in Indian country.
“We know there is a real food and nutrition crisis across Native country — both on reservation lands and in urban settings,” said Lori Watso, chair of Seeds of Native Health.
Through teaming up with a federal agency, the CNCS, which leads AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a national service program to fight poverty in America, and the IFAI, Shakopee will help to support AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers in 10 low-resource Native communities across the country, who will work toward establishing and stabilizing food sovereignty efforts, food systems and tribal economies.
AmeriCorps VISTA and the IFAI are is in the final stages of creating the application and program. The partners and the 10 tribal communities will jointly select the 21 volunteers, called “Native Food Sovereignty Fellows,” through AmeriCorps VISTA.
Tribes have hosted VISTA volunteers for nearly the entire history of the 52-year-old CNCS. “VISTA has been around since the war on poverty was launched, providing human capital, the boots on the ground, to do whatever it is the community wants and needs and identifies as necessary to address poverty in their context,” said Max Finberg, director of AmeriCorps VISTA.
But this is the first time that a tribe has invested in a national AmeriCorps VISTA project. Through its Seeds of Native Health initiative, SMSC is providing a $200,000 gift to fund the cost-share for Native Food Sovereignty Fellows’ living allowance in the first year of the program. “That means we have more sites and more VISTAs than we would have had otherwise,” Finberg said.
“This truly is an historical event, an historical initiative. The fact that tribal government is partnering with the federal government to improve tribal communities with programs that are Native led is really historic, and I think it is going to have a great impact,” Watso said.
CNCS will grant 20 Native Food Sovereignty Fellows, plus one VISTA leader position to help coordinate the grassroots efforts in the 10 tribal communities. Preliminary discussions are underway with tribes in Alaska, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Washington. CNCS and IFAI are currently identifying and selecting the 10 tribal sites to host the fellows this year.
The Native communities will be heavily involved in the volunteer recruiting process and in shaping the VISTA job descriptions, Finberg said.
For instance, CNCS is in conversations with a tribe in Oklahoma that operates a new, tribally owned meat processing plant. “The VISTA might be able to recruit additional Native producers, ranchers, who would sell their cattle or bison that might be grass-fed or organic, so that they will get a lot more value out of that product than they would have otherwise,” Finberg said.
Native Food Sovereignty Fellows complete a one-year term of service, and they can renew. Most VISTA grants extend for three years. The IFAI will recruit, train, deploy and supervise the work of these Native Food Sovereignty Fellows.
All Native Food Sovereignty Fellows will complete a generic VISTA orientation on what it means to be a “Volunteer In Service to America,” and about poverty risk at large. But it won’t be a one-size-fits-all training model, thanks to the IFAI, and the SMSC’s gift. “One of the great things that the Shakoee grant will help fund is the supplemental and additional training — specifically on working in Indian country and working on issues of food sovereignty, whether that’s the healthy futures and nutrition part of it around disease prevention, or the food codes that some tribes are developing….” Finberg said.
Watso and Finberg emphasized the tremendous influence and decision-making power of Natives in the recruiting, selection and service roles of Native Food Sovereignty Fellows. “We’re looking both to the University of Arkansas Law School that’s led by a Native American dean [Stacy Leeds, Cherokee, the first American Indian woman to serve as dean of a law school in the country], who started the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, [which is led] by a Native American woman named Janie Simms Hipp [Chickasaw]; and partnering with SMSC and Seeds of Native Health, led by Lori Watso [Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community],” Finberg said. “That’s pretty terrific for us, because we know we’re not the experts on what’s going to be the specific solution in each of these communities.”
Because of great geographic distances and cultural differences among Native communities across Indian country, solutions to the pervasive issue of food insecurity look vastly different from tribe to tribe. “The solution in the southwestern desert is a lot different than in an Alaska Native Village, and that’s a lot different than the Northern Great Plains,” Fingerg noted.
A Native-Led Call to Action
Among the underlying root causes of Native health disparities are a history of trauma, forced removal, and poor U.S. federal policy leading to poverty and malnutrition, among many other injustices.
“As we know, in the United States, Native people are the poorest of the poor, and we have the worst health disparities of any ethnic or racial group overall,” Watso said. “Of course, there was a time when we were very strong people, when we were very healthy people. But the forced removal from our ancestral lands — those lands where we hunted and gathered and even farmed, the disrespect of our traditional food ways, failed federal policies, and much worse, have led to a state where Native people live in poverty, where they are hungry, malnourished and unhealthy.”
It was Native peoples and organizations who recognized, raised awareness and began taking charge to reverse the health plight of their communities, including the soaring rates of diabetes and obesity among both Native adults and youth.
“This crisis has been brought to the forefront by Native people. We identified the crisis, we identified the need, we identified the importance of getting involved in this area — and the importance of this work being Native led,” Watso said.
The SMSC’s $5 million commitment to Seeds of Native Health was by far the most significant financial investment in the space of improving Native food access and health outcomes to date.
“Many people may see the commitment that Shakopee has made in its Seeds of Native Health initiative as a large commitment. But, it’s really very small when we look at the needs of our people,” Watso said.
Since Seeds of Native Health launched in 2015, the tribe has learned a great deal — firstly, that Shakopee and Seeds of Native Health need to partner with other tribes, organizations and funders to tackle the Native food crisis.
Shakopee and Seeds of Native Health have partnered with the University of Minnesota, the American Heart Association, the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F), First Nations Development Institute, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, The University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and other organizations.
“I’m very proud and grateful to say, our partners, including AmeriCorps VISTA, have a great respect for these things being Native-led. That’s incredibly important,” Watso said. “We’re very excited to be partnering with AmeriCorps VISTA, which is a great organization that has been working for decades to improve lives in Native communities.”
Heartfelt Stories of AmeriCorps VISTAs on the Ground in Indian Country
Finberg, a member of President Obama’s Administration, will wrap up his work as director of AmeriCorps VISTA next week. “This is my capstone and final event,” he said.
“It’s really a true testament to [President Obama’s] commitment and what happened when he said, coming back from Standing Rock two-and-a-half years ago: ‘I want something focused on Native youth,’ and Generation Indigenous came out of that,” Finberg continued. “I’ve been part of those conversations, and was just so excited that this could be the thing — after so many broken promises, after so many violated treaties and bad policies — to do our little bit to try and improve it. I am very, very proud and grateful for the partnership with Shakopee to make this a reality.”
Over his tenure with the Obama Administration, AmeriCorps VISTA, the USDA, the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, and more, Finberg has heard great success stories, and listened to tribal leaders recount heartwarming memories, of the work VISTA volunteers have done in tribal communities nationwide.
Learn more about current and former AmeriCorps VISTAs on the AmeriCorps VISTA Facebook page, @AmeriCorpsVISTA.
Finberg shared some of the stories he’s heard about tribal leaders’ fond moments with VISTA volunteers, and about monumental achievements that VISTA volunteers helped bring about:
Appalachian Coal Country
“We had one VISTA in deep Appalachian coal country in Eastern Kentucky last year who was part of the effort to try to help unemployed coal miners get other jobs,” Finberg said. “She was part of the small team at her host organization that wrote the grant that helped bring in almost $20 million to one of the poorest places in the country.”
Chairman Dave Flute, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe
“I recently met Chairman [Dave] Flute of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe in South Dakota, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, my mom was a VISTA. She moved to the reservation as a VISTA, met my dad, and then I’m a result of it.’”
Sitting Bull College in North Dakota
“I was in North Dakota a couple of months ago and visited a couple of our VISTAs who are working with tribal colleges — with Sitting Bull College and United Tribal Technical College. One VISTA had graduated from Sitting Bull, and her environmental science professor heard about the opportunity to host a VISTA and contacted her. She had just had a son and was raising him, and she was wondering what might be next. She’s now serving as a VISTA, helping her own community, where she, her husband and son live, and working with her professor on making the tribe more resilient to climate change,” Finberg said.
Butch Blazer, Mescalero Apache Tribe
When Finberg was working as the Senior Advisor and Acting Director of Tribal Relations for the USDA, he was speaking with a friend and colleague, Butch Blazer, who pointed to a VISTA volunteer named Walt for the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico as a catalyst for his extremely successful journey. “Walt was the one who took me and my friends off the rez for the first time,” Blazer told Finberg. “We visited some state parks and some national parks, and he opened our eyes to the world beyond what we knew. I went off to college, got my degree, came back and worked as the natural resources manager for my tribe, and then got a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs [where Blazer served for 27 years], and then became the State Forester of New Mexico and worked with other western state foresters [as Chair of the Council of Western State Foresters and Co-Chair for the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition], and [then] came to the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
Thereafter he was chosen “to be the number one guy – the senior-most Native American at the Department of Agriculture, in charge of Natural Resources and Environment, overseeing the 200 million acres of the United States forest service and 30,000 employees,” Finberg said of Blazer.
Blazer served as USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment from 2011-2016.
“I get excited thinking about some of these VISTAs being that same inspiration for Native youth as part of Generation Indigenous down the road. I can’t wait to hear those stories for years to come.”
Even National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe in Washington State, can recall a fond personal relationship with a former VISTA volunteer. “When I met him at the White House Tribal Leaders Conference, he said, ‘I know VISTA! There were VISTAs on my reservation when I was a kid. One of them created the first-ever tribal newsletter to let the tribal members know what was going on, and my brother and I were his paper boys,’” said Cladoosby, as Finberg recounts.
“I am just excited that we’re going to hear those stories for generations to come, because of what these VISTAs are going to do in the years following,” Finberg said.