Food Sovereignty


Food sovereignty is an increasingly important issue among native communities across the world.  As the industrial food system grows and wild food landscapes dwindle, many tribal people are severed from their traditional food ways.  Native foods are not only nutritionally superior to industrial foods (particular something like freshwater chlorella), they are deeply woven into culture.  When people cultivate, harvest, process, prepare and serve native foods, they build strong relationships with the land and with each other. We believe in the power and source of our indigenous spirits as being connected to the lands, foods, plants, waters and rocks of our ancestors.

Communities that exhibit tribal food sustainability and food sovereignty are those that:

* Have access to healthy food
* Have foods that are culturally appropriate
* Grow, gather, hunt, and fish in ways that is maintainable over the long-term
* Distribute foods in ways so people get what they need to stay healthy
* Adequately compensate the people who provide the food
* Utilize tribal treaty rights and uphold policies that ensure continued access to traditional foods

Tribal Treaties and Native Foods

A violent war for natural resources erupted between Indian people and settlers soon after non-Indians arrived in the Pacific Northwest.  While settlers wanted to possess the land through ownership, Indian people wanted to access the land as they had for countless generations.  This difference in world-view caused tensions and Indians became the target of animosity and violence, perhaps because they stood between settlers and the Northwest’s rich resources.

In response to tensions, the U.S. government negotiated a series of treaties with 20 Indian tribes in western Washington in 1855-1856.  Treaties are legally binding contracts under the United States Constitution.  Tribes were recognized as sovereign nations and agreed to give up some land but reserved certain rights to ensure their cultures would survive.  Among them were the rights to fish, hunt, and gather native foods.



Initially, the U.S. government was complacent about treaty rights, believing that settlers were primarily interested in farming as a food source.  They were gravely mistaken.  As Washington State took control of salmon harvests and treaty rights were denied, many American Indians revolted.  Treaty rights were not upheld until what is commonly referred to as the “Boldt Decision” of 1974, which reaffirmed original treaty rights and established tribes as co-managers of salmon within the state.

In spite of U.S. District Court Judge George Boldt’s decision in United States v. Washington, tension among sports and commercial fishers, the State of Washington, tribes, and tribal fishers has persisted.  Other laws make it difficult for native people to access their traditional foods.  New regulations require that Indian people get a permit for harvesting forest products, including berries and cedar.  This costs extra time and money.  There is concern that if native people do not exercise their rights to hunt, fish and gather, they will lose their rights under the treaties.

Soon after the treaties were signed, the U.S. government began distributing annuity foods that included pig fat, beans, flour and sugar to tribes.  According to Rudolph Ryser (Cowlitz) chair of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, “The strategy was to wean people away from reliance on the land.  Then they would not need access to deer, fish, and other traditional foods.  They could become ‘civilized.’”   These annuity foods were used to create foods such as fry bread.  Unfortunately, the lard was far inferior to the people’s customary sources of fat from wild animals and fish.  Carbohydrates, including wheat, were refined in a way that removed most of the fiber and made them into quick digesting high-gluten cereal and flour.  Because milk and grains were not present in the traditional diet of Washington coastal tribes, people did not have the ability to digest lactose and high-gluten wheat.  All of these may be factors in the subsequent development of chronic diseases, including diabetes.

In the 1930s, the U.S. government created the formal commodity foods program to help farm workers who were suffering from the upheaval of the Great Depression.  Surplus grains and other foods were bought from American producers to keep prices stable.  Commodity foods changed over time based on what surplus was available.  These surplus foods were distributed to Indian communities.  Many Indian People experienced growing up with commodity foods, including powdered milk that would not dissolve, poor quality meat, and processed cheese.

Tribal communities still rely heavily on government commodities and state and federal food programs to feed their people.  While food that is provided has improved over the decades, it is often high in sugar, carbohydrates, and poor quality fats that increase the risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases.  Fresh produce, good quality proteins and healthy fats that were the foundation to a healthy traditional diet are not as available in these food programs.  Additionally, state and federal food programs often mandate what types of foods must be served, even if they are not culturally appropriate.  This is where the importance of food sovereignty is evident.  As tribal communities are able to produce more of their own healthy food, they become less restricted by food regulations.

Taking Control of Food Resources

For many reasons, tribal communities across the nation are striving to become more stable in their ability to provide their own food.  According to the Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool designed by the First Nations Development Institute (2004):

Assuming power to localize your food supply affords opportunities to regain control of the most significant assets possessed by Native communities.  Conscious management of food supplies affords opportunities for tribal use of land, deliberate control of health, sustainability of the environment, and maintenance or revitalization of cultural integrity.

Innovative techniques for building food sovereignty are growing in many tribal communities across the Northwest.  The Nisqually Tribe support a garden program that produces enough native and non-native fruits and vegetables to supply tribal programs including Headstart, the elders program, community events, and individual families.  The Suquamish Tribe have created a food policy council.  Tulalip and other tribes offer community education programs that teach people how to harvest native foods and grow food in gardens.  Farmers markets on reservations are helping to fill the gap in access to local fresh produce.

Building strong partnerships within communities is central to tribal food sovereignty.  One woman from the Skokomish Tribe who fishes for a living spoke about how important it is to get to know people in your community who gather, grow, hunt or fish for food.  Often these people are willing to donate food for tribal events or may be willing to trade.  No person is an island.  We each carry different knowledge and skills.  If we rely on each other, it makes the community stronger.  When we are active citizens that recognize our dependence on the environment and on other people, then we can maintain those relationships and pass them on to the next generation.  This strengthens our social fabric and creates a balanced food system.


The Traditional Foods of Puget Sound Project

The importance of native foods emerged as a central theme through our Northwest Indian College Traditional Plants and Foods Program.  In 2008 we started a community based research project to answer the question:  How do we utilize research about traditional foods of Puget Sound Indians to create a healthier diet and lifestyle for Indian people today?

Through a review archeological research and ethnographic records as well as interviews with elders and native food experts, we identified native foods that are readily available along with locally grown foods that are nutritionally similar to native foods.  Through community roundtable discussions we documented what native foods people are still using, what the barriers are to accessing those foods, and how to overcome those barriers.  Finally, we hosted a 3-day cooks camp where 20 tribal cooks developed delicious, healthy, and inexpensive traditional foods recipes.  Project findings, stories, native foods descriptions, a grocery shopping guide, and recipes were compiled in a book entitled Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture.  Over 3,000 copies have been distributed within tribal communities.  A native foods nutrition curriculum based on the project has been taught in three Western Washington Tribal Communities and will be released as a free access teaching tool in 2013.  Read more…

The Lummi Traditional Food Project

In 2009, we began a program to increase access to healthy local foods and traditional foods in the Lummi community.  Twenty Lummi families receive boxes of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables throughout the spring, summer, and fall.  The box includes recipes and instructions on how to prepare and preserve the foods.

One of the participants in the project said:

Before the Lummi Traditional Food project, my children didn’t know what zucchini was.  When they saw me cooking a veggie stir fry, they asked if I could put that “green stuff” in the stir fry.  Now, they enjoy eating more fruits and vegetables, and they help me cook using the CSA foods.

Through interviews with participants, data is gathered on the use of traditional foods, usual and accustomed resource sites, typical meals, meals for special gatherings, food preparation methods, and more.  This program model will be useful in other tribal communities.  Read more…

The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project

To be a sovereign tribe, we need food sovereignty.  When our ancestors signed treaties, they made sure we’d be able to flourish physically, culturally, and spiritually for centuries to come.  Our Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project builds community food resources and helps knowledge keepers to share their gifts so we can sustain a healthy food system in the future for everyone.                                                                                -Valerie Segrest, Muckleshoot, Project Coordinator

In 2010, we started a project in the Muckleshoot community that focuses on building community food security through examining the tribe’s food assets, accessibility, and production potential.  We offer hands-on workshops that feature the cultural teachings related to some of our most revered traditional foods including salmon, camas, elk and berries.  Plus we use a variety of traditional cooking methods.  We also help put on traditional foods feasts for community events and have coordinated the installation of three edible food gardens that feature both local and traditional foods.  These gardens are both food production areas and educational spaces.

Collectively, through this program, the Muckleshoot community has instigated over thirty initiatives in the first two years alone. Every initiative has been requested by community members, and completely relies on community participation in order to be successful.  In 2013, community members came together to form a coalition that is developing food policy, organizing tribal food purchasing power, and creating a multi-year food sovereignty plan by 2014.  Wendy Burdette, Muckleshoot, Elders Program Coordinator for the Muckleshoot Tribe, says:

Food sovereignty is important to us.  Historically, we had good access to many types of seasonal foods from a variety of ecosystems.  Sadly, this is no longer the case.  This program is great because it lets youth work with elders.  Cultural sharing is done the traditional way.  It’s passed along orally.   

Read more

Books on Food Sovereignty

Our Food, Our Right: Recipes for Food Justice.  This booktakes you on a journey through many of the current globalized food system’s failures, and showcases creative solutions that communities worldwide are designing to regain control over their food, and the health of their bodies and neighborhoods.  The Northwest Indian College Traditional Foods of Puget Sound Project is featured along with recipes from Elise Krohn and Valerie Segrest.  Order from Community Alliance for Global Justice. or

Messages from Frank’s Landing: A Story of Salmon, Treaties and the Indian Way  (2000)  by Charles Wilkinson

Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge (2009) by Daniel Wildcat

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  (2007) by Raj Patel

Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming (2005) by Winona LaDuke

In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto (2009) by Michael Pollen

Renewing Americas Food Traditions (2008) by Gary Paul Nabhan

Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’Mamas (2010) and Closing the Food Gap (2008) by Mark Winne

Food Movements Unite: Strategies to Transform our Food Systems (2011) edited by Eric Holt-Gimenez

Online Resources:

American Native Food

Community Alliance For Global Justice 

Community Food Security Coalition 

First Nations Development Institute

Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems

The Puget Sound Traditional Diet and Diabetes Project 

Renewing Americas Food Traditions

Tohono O’Odham Community Action

White Earth Land Recovery Project