Strengthening Tribal Food Sovereignty to Honor Indigenous Peoples

Each year, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate Native peoples, to acknowledge the legacy of settler colonialism, and to commit to accountability for its impacts in the present. For MAZON, this means grappling with the history of how food was used as a tool of colonization — dark chapters in American history that aren’t taught and, as a result, erase the trauma and persecution of Native peoples — and how that continues to impact food systems today. But, as a country, we must wrestle with our disturbing racial past, even if it is uncomfortable.

U.S. settler colonialism is littered with policies that sought to break Native peoples’ connection to their lands, thereby disrupting their relationship with traditional food sources. Among the most devastating of these policies was the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forcibly removed Native peoples from their homelands. In exchange for land, Tribes were coerced into signing treaties and/or confined to reservations, and often received distributions of food rations — also known as annuity foods —which included items like pig fat, beans, flour, and sugar. These rations sought to shift Tribes away from their traditional diets and wean Native peoples away from their deep connection to the land so they would no longer need to fish, hunt, or gather traditional foods, and the land would be available for white settlement.

While these policies were clearly designed to manufacture dependency on, and a destructive relationship with, federal government food, they also set the stage for future policies that weaponized food as a vehicle to advance other aims of colonization.

Surprisingly, some of these harmful, centuries-old policies are still written into federal law, which is why MAZON is proud to support a new bill in Congress — the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes (RESPECT) Act. The RESPECT Act would repeal several laws from the late 1800s that sought to coerce and pacify Native peoples; among the laws that would be repealed is a provision that sanctioned the withholding of food rations to Native American families who refuse to send their children to school. While unenforced, these insidious policies are a disturbing relic of the past and a profound example of how food is intertwined with the history of forced assimilation and the forced removal of Native American children from their homes to boarding schools.

Erasing these shameful laws would be a positive step toward reconciliation, but it will not erase hundreds of years of oppression, nor will it represent a clear break with our colonial past. It’s not enough to take down these structures of colonization. We must also erect new policies that work to undo the historic and ongoing harms they caused. We must continue to challenge food policies, programs, and policy debates that are still too often shaped by the same assumptions of paternalism, assimilation, and disregard for Tribal sovereignty.

As a result, MAZON’s longstanding work with partners in Indian Country centers around the development of robust food and agriculture systems that support the ability of Tribal nations to feed themselves — policies that enhance Tribal food sovereignty and self-governance, and that reclaim traditional food ways. MAZON has worked alongside Native advocates and Tribes to transform U.S. federal food programs and policies to meet these goals, which are a central plank of the Tribal food sovereignty movement. MAZON has joined Native communities in advocating for improvements to the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), including seeking the inclusion of traditional foods in the FDPIR food package. MAZON’s current legislative priorities include support for both the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act and the SNAP Tribal Food Sovereignty Act that would give Tribal nations direct access to federal food assistance programs so that Tribal governments can assume responsibility and oversight over all USDA food and nutrition programs. Tribes know best what it takes to address the immense hunger and nutrition issues affecting their own communities, but they don’t have full control over the federal food programs on which many of their citizens rely.

While today is a single day to reflect on Indigenous peoples, our remarkable partners — including Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, Intertribal Agriculture Council, Native Food and Nutrition Resource Alliance, National Association of FDPIR and others — work every day to confront the impact of our country’s failed attempts to take away Native foodways and disrupt relationships with land and food. MAZON is privileged to follow their lead as we construct a future where Tribes are food secure and food sovereign.

Mia Hubbard is Vice President of Programs at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Booklet Section: Prayers for Forgiveness, Prayers of Remembrance, Sukkot & Simchat Torah