BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Centuries ago, Native American and First Nation tribes ranged far and wide across the continent, hunting animals such as bison, deer, buffalo, fish, and gathering crops like sweet potatoes and maize. But as Native American reservations continue to shrink, and urban development grows larger and more intrusive, these old lifestyles have long since given way to less healthy diets: a symptom of the crushing poverty that still permeates the life of many rural Native American communities.
Even today, reservations – both American and Canadian – remain some of the least advantaged areas in North America. One in four Native Americans lives below the poverty line. Grocery stores might be miles away and leagues above the average income. Expensive luxuries like refrigerators are few and far between. Children and adults alike subsist on cheap, sparse, and very unhealthy diets, constituting canned food, white flour, and evaporated milk. Native Americans who subsist on these Dickensian conditions are twice as likely to lack access to healthy and safe food and water, exacerbating problems such as such as clinical obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Poverty shackles Native Americans to their lives; without a reliable source of income, it’s difficult for at-risk Native Americans to relocate in search of a healthier lifestyle.
So instead of pulling up roots and settling elsewhere, some reservations have worked to put down fresh roots – vegetable roots, that is. Their rationale is simple: if our citizens can’t get fresh fruits and veggies, we’ll bring good food to them. In California, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ tribe is committed to changing how Native Americans can get their hands on fresh fruits and veggies. In the town of Smith River, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ and local volunteers are setting up a series of communal gardens, growing renewable crops such as fruit trees, berry bushes, and traditional crops like corn to supplement barren and unbalanced diets. These locally grown and volunteer-maintained “food forests” aren’t just exclusively for Native American use. As the state braces for an uncertain future wracked by climate change, food forests are sprouting up all across the Golden State.
In 2017, the Tolowa Dee-ni’’s local council plans to introduce four new food forests, using pre-allocated funding from the Department of Agriculture and the United Indian Health Services. Crops harvested will be funneled into early learning programs for the tribe’s youth, while others will be used as raw material to create meals for community elders.
Across the United States, other reservations are looking to California’s example as they, too, begin to localize agriculture. In the regions of the United States so charmingly referred to as “flyover country,” rural communities and resources remain geographically disparate. A Midwestern region the size of Connecticut might only contain three grocery stores. In these vast and rather empty landscapes, once-seminomadic tribes like the Navajo have expressed an interest in re-igniting traditional native lifeways. That interest is paying off. Two years ago, the Navajo won a $400,000 grant scheduled to last through 2019. They planned to invest this money into expanding their existing food gardens and planting more food forests; the Tolowa Dee-ni’ grabbed a similar windfall of $80,000. It didn’t take long before the food gardens started paying for themselves. The Tolowa Dee-ni’ now enjoy more than 500 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables every year. This is all before most plants hit maturity: an adult apple tree can, alone, produce 400 pounds of food per year.
Indigenous peoples and their cultures have long since been at the forefront of battles for clean water, fresh air, and durable social support nets. Now, their role in the fight for healthy food is just beginning, and their efforts are already bearing fruit.