November is Native American Heritage Month

November 10, 2020
by Eric Meredith, MEd, MS, RDN, CHES, Consultant, Feeding America

Honoring the Contributions of America’s Indigenous People

November is Native American Heritage Month – one of many times to acknowledge the experiences and contributions of Native Americans. While the list of contributions is long, this post highlights three. The first contribution involves American food culture. It is important to note that many of the foods eaten today were first used in Native American cuisines. These foods include potatoes, beans, corn, peanuts, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, peppers, melons, and sunflower seeds. The second contribution involves the structure of the United States’ government. Benjamin Franklin stated that the idea of the federal government, in which there is a separation of powers between central government and states, was borrowed from the Iroquoian League of Nations. The last highlighted contribution honors Native American military service. Even though many Native Americans were not citizens, more than 8,000 volunteered and served during World War I and over 24,000 served during World War II. One of the most notable contributions during World War II was the service of the Navajo Code Talkers; a special group who used unbreakable secret codes in Navajo that helped win several key battles. While the United States honors the contributions of Indigenous people during November, it is important to recognize the serious inequities that exist – and are a result of harm inflicted upon Native Americans.

Negative Systematic and Institutional Impacts on Tribal Communities

Native Americans have faced centuries of persecution and discrimination, losing their land and being forced onto reservations that lacked the resources needed to build and sustain their communities. Today, Native Americans still face threats from federal and state governments related to land use, including the ability to hunt, fish, gather, and preserve their own food. According to the Census Bureau, there are 6.79 million Native Americans, which makes up nearly 2% of the US population. Native Americans suffer from some of the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, diet-related diseases, and other challenges due to historic and present day systematic and institutional inequities. One out of every four Indigenous people experience food insecurity compared to 1 in 9 Americans overall. Several federal programs currently address food insecurity in Tribal communities, but it is also important to explore complementary solutions especially those that promote Native American food sovereignty. Food sovereignty, as defined by La Via Campesina, an International Peasant Movement, is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

Native American Food Insecurity Statistics

The most recent USDA Annual Household Food Security Report indicated that Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and White Americans experienced food insecurity at 25.2%, 16.8%, and 10.4%, respectively. However, the report does not clearly present data on Native Americans. A study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found that over a ten-year period, Tribal communities averaged a food insecurity rate of 25%. But this unsettling number fails to capture the extreme food insecurity experienced in some Native American communities. A recent study, prior to COVID-19, of Native American Tribes in northern California/southern Oregon, revealed that 92 percent of the households had a lack of access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food.

Federal Food Assistance Programs for Native Americans

The two largest food assistance programs that serve Native Americans are the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). SNAP is only effective if authorized grocery stores are easily accessible. Since many American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal areas have low population densities and high poverty rates, large grocers typically do not establish a presence in these areas. When SNAP is not feasible, USDA funds an alternative program, FDPIR. USDA purchases and ships selected healthful foods to Indian Tribal Organizations or State governments. Tribal areas served by FDPIR use warehouses, Tribal stores, and local sites to distribute the USDA foods. In 2019, approximately 276 Tribes received benefits through FDPIR with an average monthly participation of 83,800 people.

Gaps in Federal Feeding Systems Highlighted by COVID-19

The recent COVID-19 pandemic illuminated gaps in federal feeding systems, and many Tribes began looking for additional assistance from sources such as the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). At the current time, TEFAP does not list Tribal governments as eligible administrators of the program, but many states have approved Tribal citizens as recipients of the foods in the program. Both the Montana Food Bank Network and Second Harvest Food Bank have partnered with Tribes and donated supplies to food pantries (e.g., Blackfeet Food Pantry) and distribution sites (e.g., Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina). In a recent pilot program, the USDA, Food Bank of Alaska, and Alaska Department of Education collaborated to distribute Meals to You, a summer feeding program, directly to the doorsteps of rural residents via the US Postal Service. To provide additional assistance, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service purchased $4 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers of all sizes to supply food boxes to food banks, community organizations, and other non-profits serving Native Americans in need. Even though federal and state governments and food bank networks are continually seeking a variety of methods to address the food security needs of Tribal communities, gaps still exist in the current food assistance .

Revisiting Traditional Food Ways to Address Food Insecurity

Tribal communities have begun to revisit solutions rooted in food sovereignty to address food insecurity among Native Americans. The fundamental difference between food security and food sovereignty is that food security seeks to address the issue of food and hunger through the current dominant food systems while food sovereignty challenges this approach and seeks to build alternatives and address the root causes through a bottom-up, grass-roots approach. A study conducted by the University of California Berkley, in partnership with the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and Klamath Tribes, finds that Native American communities could improve their with a greater ability to hunt, fish, gather and preserve their own food. “We know our efforts to revitalize and care for our food system through traditional land management are critical to the physical and cultural survival of the humans who are part of it,” said Leaf Hillman, a Karuk Tribal member.  Research suggests that current measures of food insecurity need to be more culturally relevant to effectively assess and address chronic food insecurity in Native American communities.

The Ingenious Food Sovereignty Movement

Among Native Americans, there is a strong desire for strengthened Tribal governance of Native lands and stewardship of cultural resources to increase access to traditional foods, as well as strengthening skills for self-reliance including support for home food production. Native people are best suited to identify, develop, and implement solutions: Tribe-led workshops on native food gathering, preparation and preservation; removing legal barriers to hunt, fish and gather; restoring traditional rights to hunt, fish and gather on Tribal ancestral lands; and providing culturally relevant education and employment opportunities to Tribal members. To support Native food sovereignty, federal and state programs should address regulatory barriers and increase funding for the purchase of traditional, locally sourced foods like bison, wild rice, salmon, catfish, and blue corn meal.

Organizations Advancing Food Sovereignty in Indian Country

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) provides a tribal, regional and national Native voice in policy issues affecting Native food production and diet and to be a support system or network for grassroots Native efforts as they work to revive tradition and community-based food systems.

White Earth Land Recovery Project facilitates the recovery of the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation while preserving and restoring traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency, community development and strengthening spiritual and cultural heritage.

Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA) provides workshops in seed saving, health, wellness and best farming practices to revitalize traditional agriculture for spiritual and human need.

Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative provides Tribal governments, producers, and food businesses with educational resources, policy research, and strategic legal analysis as a foundation for building robust food economies.

Partnership with Native Americans provides material aid and services to Tribal communities in the United States through immediate relief and connecting outside resources directly to reservations.

Becoming a Supporter of Native American Food Sovereignty

Increased access to Native foods, removal of barriers to food sovereignty, and support for Native Americans’ rights to hunt, fish, gather, and preserve their food are promising strategies to address food insecurity in Tribal communities. To assess the future needs of Tribal communities, researchers propose including access to native foods as an evaluation measure of food security for Native people. It will be important for organizations serving Native Americans to continue consulting with Tribal Organizations in meaningful ways to develop solutions to increase food sovereignty and remove systematic and institutional barriers. For many Native Americans, food sovereignty is the ultimate long-term solution to eliminate food insecurity. Anyone who works with Native Americans should strive to support this movement.

Eric Meredith is a cultural competency consultant for Feeding America.  He currently serves as a Tribal Relations Specialist at a large government agency.  Prior to his current role, Eric was a community nutrition education program manager for the University of Illinois and federal government.