Native American Farmers Trying to Grow Change

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It’s rare that the food security conversation focuses solely on the Native American population, so it was fantastic to read Steve Holt’s article “Are Young Native Americans Changing the State of Food in Indian Country?” at TakePart.com.

Native Americans’ culture and tradition have been systematically suppressed over the last couple hundred years, creating an acute disassociation with agriculture for large swaths of the indigenous population. Today, that means a dependency on processed, industrialized food resulting in distressing health statistics.

Holt writes:

Without indigenous sources of food, junk food consumption became the norm. Today, American Indians and Alaska Natives are almost twice as likely (39.4 percent) as white Americans (24.3 percent) to be obese, meaning they have a body-mass index of 30 or greater. Perhaps most startling of all, American Indians have the highest prevalence of diabetes in the nation, 16.1 percent, compared to other major racial and ethnic groups—and more than twice that of white Americans.

But there is hope on the horizon and it’s being harnessed by Jamie Simms Hipp, a lawyer and citizen of the Chickasaw nation. Hipp is paying close attention to the rise in agricultural activity in Native American communities, which has seen nearly doubled numbers in five years (from 2002 to 2007).

“There’s this growing realization that tribes that have access to land are ramping up their agricultural production,” Hipp says. “It’s still a small percentage of overall number of farms, but when you start to put the lens around it that it is in proportion to native people’s general population and their utilization of the land in Indian Country, it really starts to have a pretty profound picture.”

But Hipp adds that it doesn’t mean these agriculture projects are economically or environmentally sustainable, not to mention the difficulty tribal leaders have in creating policies around agriculture production.

So Hipp has joined forces with University of Arkansas School of Law’s Stacy Leeds to begin laying the groundwork to help “shepherd tribes through issues of food systems, agriculture and community sustainability.”

“There’s a lot of awareness, a lot of interest,” Hipp says. “What we haven’t had really is a focused interest in how you govern around food and agriculture. How does a tribal chairperson craft policy that resonates among their people, but also speaks to how they will deal with food issues around the reservation?”

The younger generation of Native Americans are already showing a marked interest in sustainable agriculture and food security. Holt writes:

Like young people in the general population, there is evidence to suggest that native youth are more interested in food issues than their parents. The nationwide Future Farmers of America organization counts 12,000 American Indians among its membership.

With the poor health and stark economics plaguing the majority of the Native American population, we hope the attention and commitment to fostering this movement continues to build.

Click here to learn more about recently launched Indigenous Food & Agriculture Initiative, led by Janie Simms Hipp and Stacy Leeds.

Click here to read the article in full.

Photo Credit: David Hiser | Getty Images