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Food Sovereignty Movement Sprouts as Bison Return to Indigenous Communities

Native American leaders see bison herds and ancestral gardens as ways to bring healthy eating to their people

By Jim Robbins, KFF Health News
Sophia Moreno (Apsáalooke/Laguna Pueblo/Ojibwe-Cree) plants crops in the Indigenous gardens outside American Indian Hall on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, Montana. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez /Montana State University)

BOZEMAN — Behind American Indian Hall on the Montana State University campus, ancient life is growing.

Six-foot-tall corn plants tower over large green squash and black-and-yellow sunflowers. Around the perimeter, stalks of sweetgrass grow.

The seeds for some of these plants grew for millennia in Native Americans’ gardens along the upper Missouri River. It’s one of several Native American ancestral gardens growing in the Bozeman area, totaling about an acre. Though small, the garden is part of a larger, multifaceted effort around the country to promote “food sovereignty” for reservations and tribal members off reservation, and to reclaim aspects of Native American food and culture that flourished in North America for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. Restoring bison to reservations, developing community food gardens with ancestral seeds, understanding and collecting wild fruits and vegetables, and learning how to cook tasty meals with traditional ingredients are all part of the movement.

“We are learning to care for plant knowledge, growing Indigenous gardens, cultivating ancestral seeds — really old seeds from our relatives the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara: corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers,” said Jill Falcon Ramaker, an assistant professor of community nutrition and sustainable food systems at Montana State. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Anishinaabe.

“A lot of what we are doing here at the university is cultural knowledge regeneration,” she said.

But it also has a very practical application: to provide healthier, cheaper, and more reliable food supplies for reservations, which are often a long way from supermarkets, and where processed foods have helped produce an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease.

Many reservations are food deserts where prices are high and processed food is often easier to come by than fresh food. The Montana Food Distribution Study, a 2020 paper funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that the median cost in the state of a collection of items typically purchased at a grocery store is 23% higher on a reservation than off.

“With food sovereignty we are looking at the ability to put that healthy food and ancestral foods which we used to survive for thousands of years, putting those foods back on the table,” Ramaker said. What that means exactly can vary by region, depending on the traditional food sources, from wild rice in the Midwest to salmon on the Pacific coast.

Central to the effort, especially in Montana, are bison, also referred to as buffalo. In 2014, 13 Native nations from eight reservations in the U.S. and Canada came together to sign the Buffalo Treaty, an agreement to return bison to 6.3 million acres that sought “to welcome BUFFALO to once again live among us as CREATOR intended by doing everything within our means so WE and BUFFALO will once again live together to nurture each other culturally and spiritually.”

Nearly a decade later, dozens of tribes have buffalo herds, including all seven reservations in Montana.

The buffalo-centered food system was a success for thousands of years, according to Ramaker, who directs both the regional program, known as the Buffalo Nations Food Systems Initiative — a collaboration with the Native American Studies Department and College of Education, Health and Human Development at Montana State — and the Montana-specific effort, known as the Montana Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative. It wasn’t a hand-to-mouth existence, she wrote in an article for Montana State, but a “knowledge of a vast landscape, including an intimate understanding of animals, plants, season, and climate, passed down for millennia and retained as a matter of life and death.”

With bison meat at the center of the efforts, the BNFSI is working to bring other foods from the northern Plains Native American diet in line with modern palates.

The BNFSI has received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to carry out that work, in partnership with Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, North Dakota.

Life on reservations is partly to blame for many Native people eating processed foods, Ramaker said. Food aid from the federal government, known as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, has long been shipped to reservations in the form of boxes full of packaged foods. “We were forced onto the reservations, where there was replacement food sent by the government — white flour, white sugar, canned meat, salt, and baking powder,” she said.

Experts say processed foods contribute to chronic inflammation, which in turn leads to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which occurs at three times the rate in Native Americans as it does in white people.

Studies show that people’s mental and physical health declines when they consume a processed food diet. “In the last decade there’s a growing amount of research on the impact of good nutrition on suicide ideation, attempts, and completion,” said KayAnn Miller, co-executive director of the Montana Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Bozeman, who is also involved with the BNFSI.

All Native American reservations in Montana now have community gardens, and there are at least eight gardens on the Flathead Reservation north of Missoula, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The tribe is teaching members to raise vegetables, some of them made into soup that is delivered to tribal elders. This year members grew 5 tons of produce to be given away.

Ancestral seeds are part of the effort. Each year the BNFSI sends out 200 packets of seeds for ancestral crops to Indigenous people in Montana.

Creating foods that appeal to contemporary tastes is critical to the project. The BNFSI is working with Sean Sherman, the “Sioux Chef,” to turn corn, meat, and other Native foods into appealing dishes.

Sherman founded the award-winning Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis and in 2020 opened the Indigenous Food Lab, through his nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems. The lab, in downtown Minneapolis, is also a restaurant and an education and training center that creates dishes using only Indigenous foods from across the country — no dairy, cane sugar, wheat flour, beef, chicken, or other ingredients from what he calls the colonizers.

“We’re not cooking like it’s 1491,” Sherman said last year on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” referring to the period before European colonization. “We’re not a museum piece or something like that. We’re trying to evolve the food into the future, using as much of the knowledge from our ancestors that we can understand and just applying it to the modern world.” Among his signature dishes are bison pot roast with hominy and roast turkey with a berry-mint sauce and black walnuts.

The Bozeman-based nonprofit HRDC built a $29 million building with a state-of-the-art kitchen that will house the country’s second Indigenous food lab, Ramaker said. It will open next year and expand the ongoing work creating recipes, holding cooking workshops, and preparing cooking videos.

Angelina Toineeta, who is Crow, is studying the BNFSI at Montana State as part of her major in agriculture. “Growing these gardens really stuck out to me,” she said. “Native American agriculture is something we’ve lost over the years, and I want to help bring that back.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

Correction: This article was revised to correctly identify the organization that built the facility to house the Indigenous food lab in Bozeman, and to clarify how it will be used.

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