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Food Sovereignty Empowers, Restores Cultural Connections

by Adam Yarish, WFU Communications Intern

Stresses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have revealed many weaknesses in the food system – from farm closures, meat processing plant shutdowns, to barren grocery store shelves – however, issues of food insecurity have long plagued Indigenous communities across the United States. The symptoms of which have been further aggravated by the current climate.

Everyone should have access to and autonomy over what foods they are putting into their bodies. I believe it should be a human right,” University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire senior Tressa Lange said.

 It is this attitude that caused Lange to study Indigenous food systems, but when she noticed that the available data was limited, particularly regarding the Midwest, she felt obligated to contribute with her own research.

“My passion really started to evolve once I got to college and started to learn about food deserts and what food sovereignty is. I realized that there is not a huge conversation surrounding Indigenous communities and their fight for food security. I talked to some of my professors about my interest and we decided to do research that could create a database of tribal farms and what they are doing in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Lange said.

When approached about covering her work for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Lange was happy to cooperate, early to the meeting, and promptly handed over a well-marked copy of “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States” she felt was imperative to future conversations.  

The author, Devon A. Mihesuah wrote, “Our tribes are facing unprecedented health problems directly related to diet, poverty, and lack of knowledge about nutrition. Why this happened is complicated… The environment deteriorated from overhunting and overgrazing. The tribe fractured along party lines, and an economic class system developed that continues until today,”

Mihesuah’s story is not uncommon, and as she wrote, “complicated”. When it comes to Indigenous food sovereignty, aspects of food nutrition, variety, and availability are components of a much larger issue. 

“The concept of food sovereignty is not focused only on rights to land, food, and the ability to control a production system, but also responsibilities to and culturally, ecologically, and spiritually appropriate relationships with elements of those systems.” Mihesuah wrote.

Many Indigenous tribes in the United States were pushed off their land; the foods and methods of production that they had historically thrived on they were forced to abandon. For many tribal nations, the land that resulted from treaties were barren, unfavorable tracts, generally unfit for farming. Over a hundred years later, the damage to health, culture, and economy continues, a painful and constant reminder of colonialism.

“When thinking about food sovereignty, it is important to understand the potential for cultural healing. There are a lot of young people, myself included, who have our Indigenous traditional values. However, learning about the types of foods our ancestors once ate — learning how to care for ourselves and produce our own foods — gives us a chance to connect with our past,” Lange said. “It gives the elders a chance to teach the younger ones about their history and culture in a way that store bought foods could never do.”

As different tribes continue to restore their food sovereignty, there are often unexpected benefits that can empower Indigenous groups and non-Indigenous groups alike, especially as environmental concerns become more prevalent in modern agriculture.

“If you take the Indigenous food system ‘Three Sisters’ (squash, beans, and corn) as an example and examine the way that it is planted, each of the three crops has what it needs to thrive; they are companion crops. That is very advanced in terms of ecology, especially in terms of post-contact methodology,” Lange said.

Citing another example of the relevance of traditional Indigenous knowledge, Lange shifted from companion crops to irrigation.

“In the Southwest, tribes used what is called a “waffle” irrigation system that helped the clay in the soil retain moisture during the arid summers while using considerably less water than contemporary Western agriculture,” Lange said.

While Lange’s research progresses, she urges readers to become a part of the conversation by educating themselves on Indigenous history and food sovereignty. Moreover, Lange suggests showing support through conscientious spending. 

“Try to buy from Native communities, there are communities such as Hayward who sell their own wild rice that they harvest, Shakopee has a co-op on their reservation that sells a lot of produce. We are seeing more and more Indigenous communities starting to produce and sell from their farms,” Lange said. 

Finally, Lange foresees opportunities for allyship through the Indigenous food sovereignty movement.

“There is a lot to be learned in this area that everyone can benefit from and I think that is why I am so invested in the topic,” Lange said. “Just to get a conversation started can make a huge difference and create a ripple effect.”

Related information: (podcast interviewing broad spectrum of Indigenous and non-Indigenous contributors) (podcast on contemporary Indigenous identity) (seasonal publication on current events/issues by the Great Lakes Indian Fishing and Wildlife Commission) (collection of essays on Indigenous food sovereignty – referenced in this article) (collection of essays that represent issues, philosophies, and history from an Indigenous perspective)

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