Although we missed getting our blog together in time to cover the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit, I did want to provide a very short writeup of the history of Native Americans in the U.S. food system, to give some context for all the amazing stuff that’s going on right now.
Alas, this is not a history of Native American food, although you can read a little bit about it here and here. It’s really just a legal history. The thing is, the U.S. government’s relationship with the tribal nations is long and complex. As an overview by the National Agricultural Law Center provides:
The development of Native American law has taken a circuitous route based upon the position of the federal government at a given time and these changes of position (often referred to as eras) still play an important role in modern legal issues. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power under the Commerce clause to regulate commerce with the Indian Tribes and the President with the power to negotiate treaties with the tribes. Along with early Supreme Court decisions, the provisions found in the Constitution have effectively given the federal government the sole authority to regulate the tribes. The tribes also have a right to self-governance, subject only to the authority of the federal government, which gives rise to the rest of the statutes, regulations, and cases that comprise Native American law.
This unique relationship also affects federal agricultural laws and regulations that impact Native Americans and their tribes. The relationship creates differences, and as a result it is important to look closely at the statutes and regulations surrounding an issue to determine whether special circumstances exist that may alter the situation. Some federal laws allow for tribes to enforce them in place of the federal government much like a state. Other programs exist that impact tribal members on an individual level as seen in the programs dealing with nutrition. These differences make it critical to carefully review the statutes and regulations surrounding any agricultural issue that relates to Native Americans.
What has this relationship looked like in the past? Well, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 displaced countless Native Americans from their lands, removing them from places that provided them sustenance via traditional food practices. The promise was that the federal government would provide health care, education, and food rations in exchange for sovereignty over reservation lands. These promises, however, were sadly unfulfilled.
Instead, the results were tragic for the tribes. Indeed, many of these agreements with tribes were not upheld until the “Boldt Decision” of 1974, in which a federal court reaffirmed the rights of Washington’s Indian tribes–as per their treaty with the United States–to practice their customary fishing practices. (See here for more discussion on the legacy of the Boldt Decision.)
Moreover, the initial focus of the federal government was to “civilize” tribal members by moving them away from traditional food practices towards more Western-styled commodity consumption. As the Northwest Indian College food sovereignty page describes it:
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.
(This phenomenon was not limited to Native American communities, hat tip to Andrea Freeman’s seminal The Unbearable Whiteness of Milk article.)
Tribes are still struggling to regain food sovereignty–defined as “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. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations”–to this day. Their efforts draw strength from not only activist tribal members, but from the first Global Forum on Food Sovereignty held in Mali in 2007.
In recent years, though, more public attention has been given to Native American food sovereignty and that has been fantastic. In 2013, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance began, with a mission of “develop[ing] a movement that gives voice to issues of Native sovereignty, food-system control and policy development, and serves as a strong network for collaboration among various organizations engaged in Native food-system control.” We in Dark Meat are excited to cover the developments to come!