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Food sovereignty has been important to tribal communities like the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, but the pandemic amplified the need for it.

“With the COVID-19, we saw a renewed interest in returning to holistic ways and traditional ways of living and being and part of that is food,” said Lori Nelson, director of agriculture and land grants at NHS College.

And in early February, the college received a two-year $100,000 grant to carry out a food sovereignty virtual education, which they did last year.

The college initiated a program last summer called “Grow Your Own” that encouraged people to start their own backyard gardens or join the college’s community garden.

To further educate, Native American Studies Director Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills, enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes and Maxoxadi (Alkali Lodge) Clan member, streamed videos on Facebook to teach topics like soil health and how to preserve food. It was also a way for her to uplift the somber mood of not seeing people frequently during the pandemic.

“Part of that was going through and doing the Facebook Lives just because for me that was a way of connecting to my friends virtually,” she said. “It allowed us to connect with other people and share some of the positive.”

She also teaches how to make traditional food and its significance for certain ceremonies.

“It was an opportunity to share that knowledge as well as have that sense of community. And it was fun, there was a lot of laughing,” Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills said.

She added the grant will help the MHA Nation to be self-sustainable and to preserve the culture through traditional knowledge. For instance, traveling far for baby formula and toilet paper are what she hopes can be addressed locally.

“We have a lot of knowledge that our people have carried for a long time and we have this opportunity to use this funding to bring some of that forward, to preserve that, and perpetuate that and to strengthen our communities,” she said.

Since the grant is supplied from the American Indian College Fund, there’s an opportunity to collaborate with sister colleges of the NHS College.

“There’s this regional sense among tribal communities of ‘we need to really be working together across communities, across tribes to strengthen our food sovereignty’,” she said. “It’s really an exciting time to think about this revitalization, this taking ownership, that reclaiming of these things and being able to collaborate.”

And the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network, a national program that is part of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, is working on a seed keeping initiative to achieve food sovereignty through their work with communities, local growers and families.

Their midwest regional coordinator Shiloh Maples said they are in the process of rolling out a food sovereignty assessment toolkit that guides people on how to do seed census work like identifying which seeds exist in their communities and how seeds are moved throughout their area.

The goal of the project, created by Rowen White, is to observe the current status of seed and to continue to build an effective food sovereignty system.

It was intended to be all done in-person last year before the pandemic changed everything. However, it was adapted to three virtual module sessions with Maples facilitating an additional monthly gathering for training participants to offer support, share any challenges and how they’re implementing the toolkit in their communities.

“We really try to create a space where everyone can learn and everyone can also contribute their wisdom and experience and to support one another,” she said.

Last spring, the network hosted their first seed drive and are planning to continue this year. ‘Seed literacy materials’ such as tips on how to care for seeds and information on seed-saving will be included in the packages.

“A lot of people were gearing up to try to plant their gardens possibly for the first time or maybe the first time in a really long time,” Maples said. “People were super appreciative of that support.”

Maples said they are also looking forward to establishing a regional seed growers cooperative; to revitalize inter-tribal seed trade by identifying endangered seed varieties and to further stabilize seed supply.

As of now, listening sessions and surveys will be done to analyze the effects of the food sovereignty assessment toolkit. Maples will then make a report to see how the seed network is operating and if there needs to be action for threatened or endangered seeds and if they could be saved.

“COVID has really just highlighted long-standing challenges our communities have faced in relation to food sovereignty…[it] has brought greater awareness to these food issues and really energized a lot of people to start thinking about how they can incorporate these things into their everyday lives,” Maples said.

People who want to join the Indigenous SeedKeepers Network can request a toolkit or training for their community through their website

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