- By Zach Ducheneaux
For over 30 years, the Intertribal Agriculture Council has sought to improve tribal economies through the thoughtful and sustainable use of our natural resources.
The concepts we work toward are not new. Since time immemorial, this is what our people have done on this continent. Things that were so well researched by countless generations, with the lessons shared from one generation to the next through oral conveyance, are finally coming back into style.
When the Europeans landed on this continent, contrary to conventional wisdom, they encountered farmers, herders, fishers, and foragers engaged in time-honored, thoughtful, science-based practices. Just imagine where this entire planet might be today if the Europeans would have looked around with the same curiosity and sense of oneness with their environment that our people had found to be the solution and then sought to share that with the rest of the world, instead of imposing their flawed agriculture methods that forced them to flee Europe to start with.
The buzzwords of the today in food and agriculture — sustainable, regenerative, holistic, organic, natural — were a way of life for our people in 1491. Fast forward through a few hundred years of thoughtlessness, coercion, deceit, extraction, exploitation and ignorance, and we live in a nation that now seems hellbent to lead the world down a path to destroy the planet, with a disease-ridden population, and people going hungry and living in poverty all across it.
Maybe, just maybe, if they’d have paid a little more attention to what was going on when they got here — alas, I digress.
To their credit, they’ve done a damn fine job of trying to erase our history. Trying to sell us and the rest of the world on the notion that we all rode horses and chased buffalo in between warring with our neighbors. But like their agricultural practices that frankly didn’t work in Europe — and haven’t worked sustainably anywhere else in the world — that effort to erase the past has failed.
More and more, we are reclaiming our place as stewards of the land we occupy, shaking loose of shortsighted agriculture and business practices, and we are getting back to business — the business of feeding our people. What made us formidable opponents, forcing a nation with guns and cannons to resort to every underhanded, dishonorable trick in the book, was that we could provide for ourselves and our people. A centuries-long effort to strip us of our ability to do that is coming to an end, and more aspects of our lives are being conducted in a manner that is better aligned with our cultural values.
A Virtual Food Sovereignty Symposium we co-hosted a few months ago had more than 1,000 folks signed up. Everything from Indigenous products grown and harvested for countless generations to our relatives using more contemporary products in ways their ancestors would be proud of were highlighted as we shared success stories with our relatives. The way Indians used to do it.
That brings us back to the headline: Keeping the tribal in tribal business. The lights and sounds of our casinos, the hallways of our tribal or national headquarters, our mainstreet artists markets, our hospitals, our schools, even our villages, towns, and cities — they all have something in common. Our relatives live, work or stay there, and they must eat. More than 80,000 Indian producers, this very morning, are working to feed them.
Far too often, we are all guilty of mindlessly buying food at our local grocery store, or the regional supermarket, or making that order from the Sysco or US Foods truck, trying to stretch that dollar as far as we can. That savings we may realize is buying into this system, and while our short-term economic reality might dictate that we have to make those choices, it need not quell our voice.
Ask the grocer where their meat comes from. Talk to your relatives about the vegetables in institutional food purchases that are being made at the local school, or the local IHS. Visit with your tribal leaders about their efforts to rebuild our economies through food. When you see a farmer or rancher on the street, ask them if they have any food for sale. Odds are, they don’t even see themselves in that light, because of that 80,000, very few are able to sell food to their people. They sell a product to a company, and a majority of the time it is trucked across the country, processed in a manner that degrades its nutritional value, and then packaged and hauled back to us.
More and more, we see Tribes thinking about food as a critical part of their economy, returning to what we’ve always known. In spite of the best efforts to erase it from our memory, the first tribal business to ever happen was growing food. This is the key to self-determination. As long as we’re dependent on the food companies to fill our stores, we will struggle. We will build those businesses that would help us keep that food within our territory. We will rebuild a more equitable and thoughtful food system in Indian Country.
Many of my relatives fight literal pipelines and I applaud their bravery and fortitude. While they carry that fight for all of us, I and the rest of the folks at the Intertribal Agriculture Council will continue to fight the metaphorical pipeline that is the blacktop highway, taking our once nutritious and thoughtfully grown product at a bargain basement price away from our people, turning it into poison and selling it back to us, all in a futile attempt to plague us with disease and poverty.
Rebuilding our tribal food economies is happening, and will continue. Our people depend on it. Together, we’re going to change it. The key is putting the tribal back in tribal business.
Zach Ducheneaux is executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, a national nonprofit whose membership is made up of all federally recognized tribes. Also a third-generation cattle and horse rancher on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, he understands the challenges producers face, and works to raise awareness of agriculture as an economic development tool through system changing approaches to ag finance.