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Thanksgiving Takeaways

A column by Michael E. Roberts about Thanksgiving.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving has been as a celebration of giving, a day of thanks—thankful to be surrounded by family and friends. For many Native people, however, the Thanksgiving holiday is associated with a national celebration of “taking,” and is a constant reminder of the colonialization that led to land theft, reservation confinement, and historical atrocities.

The U.S. has long treated Indian religion and creation stories as quaint myths, but it sure holds dearly to its own mythical stories of creation. The colonizer’s myth of the first Thanksgiving is a delightful story where Native nations of the east broke bread with the colonists of the “new world.” Native peoples, however, know the full fabrication of the historical circumstances surrounding this celebration. But one thing that cannot be forgotten is the central role that food plays in this historical pageant. Food takes center stage in this narrative because Native peoples were in control of their food.

Connecting the dots between vibrant Native food systems and economies, however, is far from complicated. Agricultural and food-systems production provided the backbone of trade and exchange for most Indian nations. One aspect of American history rarely receives attention was the U.S. government’s strategy to deliberately starve Indians into submission by deliberately destroying their food systems—whether it was George Washington’s torching of hundreds of thousands of bushels of Iroquois corn, or the willful destruction of the fields and orchards of the Apache and Pueblo people.

Roughly 400 years after this first Thanksgiving, many Native peoples are dependent upon public assistance to eat, including the USDA’s commodity food program. Statistics also tell us that Native people in 22 states receive commodity food, and that approximately one in four Native households is “food insecure,” and do not have enough to eat. Moreover, another one in 10 households is experiencing hunger. We can easily connect the dots between the current state of Native food systems, and Indian peoples’ lack of control, and horrifying Native health statistics.

The way Indian people and Indian nations unconsciously and consciously purchase and eat food should put food systems back as the centerpiece of strategies for food-system restoration, improved economies, and health care, because the loss of traditional diet and adoption of diets high in fat and refined sugars have made Indians more susceptible to the unholy trilogy of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

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Health studies show that six of 10 Native Americans are likely to develop type 2 diabetes—mostly the result of poor dietary health—and have higher instances of obesity and heart disease. It is troubling that diabetes was essentially unknown among Indians in 1912, and still clinically nonexistent in 1930. Today, Indians suffer diabetes more than twice the national average (some places, the rate is much higher), and it is consuming more and more American Indian health-care resources. A final startling fact, from "State of the Science: A Cultural View of Native Americans and Diabetes Prevention.” In it Edwards and Patchell alarmingly report that per-capita health care expenditures in 2003 were $3,803 for each federal prisoner, but only $1,914 per capita in the federal allotment to Indian Health Services. How can we not conclude that spending priorities on health are directly linked to access to care and health outcomes.

At First Nations, we believe that preservation and resurrection of traditional diet is important to the health and healthy economies of Indian country, including food traditions. Agricultural holdings of Native tribes and communities, including range and cropland, constitute more than 47 million of the 54 million acres of Indian trust l. Additionally, tribes own rights to billions of acre-feet of water rights. Together this could afford a strong incentive for renewing Native food systems and food sovereignty. Unfortunately, 70 percent of Indian cropland is leased to non-Indians, as are 20 percent of rangelands, reducing Native control of their food systems. The 8,000 Indian farmers operating on reservations produce few crops for local consumption. This lack of control is at the heart of First Nations’ Native agriculture and food work, and healthy economies and communities built on sound and historically-proven cultural beliefs. Today, we are beginning to see Native communities starting to reclaim control of their food systems.

Many reservation communities lack a vibrant private sector, preventing the economic multiplier effect that benefits most other economies, where one dollar introduced into an economy becomes worth $2 or $3. In many reservation communities, those dollars do not recirculate.

We believe that Indian nations’ controlled food systems is a logical first step. Everyone, even poor people, spend 30 percent to 40 percent of their income on food. A 5,000-person community, with a per-capita income of $8,000, spends between $12 million and $16 million annually on food. This could translate to $25 million to $50 million to the economy, with the side benefit of improved nutrition and health expenditure savings.

We believe that the time is now to restore Indian communities’ control of the assets they own. In doing so, how can we ignore the role of Native-controlled food systems as an opportunity for both healthy bodies and healthy economies for Indian country?

Michael E. Roberts is the president of the First Nations Development Institute.