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Natives Organize for a Better Food Future

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Message Dave Wheelock
Indeed, we live in strange times. For the first time in the history of humankind, most of our citizens could not raise, catch, hunt, gather, nor prepare a nutritious diet if their lives depended on it. Which they do. As if that alone were not a perilous enough prospect, observation of health trends suggests many couldn't care less.

Against the hollow prospect of acquiring one's sustenance through a drive-up window, there stand those, steadily increasing in organization and activism, who value food as a defining element of their cultures and traditions. And, as my sister and I found out firsthand at the Native Foods Celebration and Retreat held in May at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, these folks are not giving it up without a fight.

In North America as elsewhere, the centuries-old struggle by indigenous people for cultural survival is being waged in croplands, forests, rivers, kitchens, markets, and governments. Throughout the length and breadth of North America, Indian economies have for eons thrived on intimate knowledge of, and respect for, the natural order of their surroundings. Now, producers and activists from tribes as diverse in their lifeways as the ecosystems in which they reside are coming together to develop the strength and strategies they will need to reverse the destruction that industrial food production has brought to the landscapes, markets, and cultures of this continent.

Our hearts swelled at the opening of the food festival as our cousin Paul Ninham, council member for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, delivered the traditional blessing of Thanksgiving in our tribe's native language. Over the course of his boarding school years off the Oneida reservation, two stints in the U.S. Army, and an itinerant career in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, our dad succeeded in providing us kids with the advantages of the American dream. Somewhere along way, he also sacrificed his Oneida tongue.

Winona LaDuke delivered the Festival's opening remarks. Ms. LaDuke, whose achievements and national honors have accumulated beyond convenient listing since her Harvard days, is Anishinaabeg (sometimes called Ojibwe or Chippewa) and founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) on that reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

WELRP's initial campaign in the 1980s centered not only around Anishinaabeg efforts to restore their historical land base, but also to perpetuate their sacred strain of naturally-occurring manoomin (rice) in a market increasingly dominated by paddy-grown hybrids. The movement's efforts have adapted to include a successful drive to get the Minnesota state legislature to declare a two-year moratorium on any future effort to genetically "engineer" wild rice. Consistent with an awareness of the interconnectedness of all aspects of a healthy community, White Earth's mission also includes components in the rejuvenation of aboriginal lands and waters, including the reintroduction of native sturgeon, community gardening, animal husbandry, alternative energy, marketing of locally-produced food and products, and more. Through it all, there runs the current of community education, especially of youth. There's a lot to learn about community building at WELRP's website,

Participant/exhibitors from many tribes offered the flavors of their traditional cultures at Sunday's celebration: salmon from the Nez Perce, piki bread from Tesuque Pueblo, Quechua quinoa from Bolivia, bison stew from Picuris Pueblo. I tried not to make a pig of myself.

On Monday, members of a host of organizations (Renewing America's Food Traditions, The Cultural Conservancy, Indigenous Food Sovereignty Network, Native Seeds/SEARCH, New Mexico Acequia Association, Traditional Farmers' Association, Association for Hawaiian 'Awa, et. al.) assembled for discussions on how to network in broadening the message that securing local control over food - food sovereignty ┬ľ is a fundamental ingredient of community security.

Our family was again honored when Cousin Paul's wife, Jill Martus-Ninham (Pala of California), served as facilitator for the closing strategy session. An existing alliance will be strengthened with the burgeoning International Slow Food movement (, whose 2006 meeting in Turin, Italy, brought together 9,000 people from 150 nations: farmers, fishermen, breeders, artisan food producers, cooks, university professors, and thousands of observers. In addition, support from tribal leaders will be sought at upcoming meetings of the National Congress of American Indians, this country's largest Native American government organization. NCAI delegates have already signed on to a declaration supporting the preservation of native seeds, two-thirds of which have vanished since the European invasion. Indigenous tribes, long considered irrelevant by the mainstream, offer critical insight and know-how for the survival of all those who would live on this continent in the future.

The age of industrial agriculture, built on an ill-considered dogma of speed, convenience, and profit, continues to deal toxic punishment upon the land and her people. As Winona LaDuke says, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu." But centralized corporate agriculture's days are clearly numbered by the growing scarcity of petroleum products and a citizen reawakening. The stage is set for a return to proven traditions, based on our renewed respect for place and season.
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Dave Wheelock is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and a professional university rugby coach in Socorro, New Mexico. He holds a history degree from the University of New Mexico. His Pencil Warrior column appears in the Socorro Mountain Mail (more...)
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