Are Young Native Americans Changing the State of Food in Indian Country?

Diabetes and food insecurity are rife in native communities, but research suggests tribes are now turning to sustainable agriculture.

Children from the Yakima Indian tribe in Washington State pick huckleberries. (Photo by: David Hiser/Getty Images)

Feb 13, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

For many of us, the term “American Indian” brings to mind stories of Indians’ mastery of agriculture, and how they gave the earliest European settlers a few pointers that may have kept them alive. American Indians’ connection to the land—land they worked and harvested before anyone else—is ingrained in their identity.

But sadly, over the last century or so, many Indian traditions—including their practices of agriculture and cooking—became diluted or disappeared completely. Sustainable economic development became hard to come by, and poverty skyrocketed.

As a result, nutrition—followed by overall health—deteriorated among native peoples. 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 could an agricultural revolution, led by the tribes’ youngest members, reverse this disturbing health trend among Indians? When agriculture lawyer Janie Simms Hipp, herself a citizen of the Chickasaw nation, looks at recent data and the growing number of agriculture projects popping up among the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes, she is hopeful. For one, the number of farms run by American Indians or Alaska Natives almost doubled between 2002 and 2007, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s census (the 2012 census numbers have not been released yet). And according to the National Congress of American Indians, agriculture is now the second largest employer of native people in the United States.

“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.

These problems led Hipp and Stacy Leeds from the University of Arkansas School of Law—the nation’s only American Indian law school dean—to envision a legal entity that could shepherd tribes through issues of food systems, agriculture and community sustainability.

Having most recently served as the senior adviser for tribal relations to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, Hipp now serves as the founding director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative—which will work with tribes and tribal leaders to craft policies and business models that bolster sustainable food systems not only as a means of nutrition, but as an economic driver for the community.

“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?”

Rethinking these issues could not come soon enough for many American Indian tribes, either, given the health epidemics that have taken hold in many communities. In 2011, the CDC reported that a third of the American Indians in Southern Arizona have been diagnosed with diabetes, and in other native communities half or more of the adult population is diabetic. A recent study found that only 16 percent of Native Americans have a healthful diet, a reality Hipp believes is largely brought on by poverty and lack of food access.

“When you are living in a community where 80 percent of the people are unemployed and no one can afford to put in food outlets, you get in a car with other people and you drive 100 miles off reservation to get food,” she says. “You can’t make that drive every day, so you are going to by definition pick up as many foods as you can that have as long a shelf life as possible.”

For Hipp, hope for the future comes from looking at the energy of young American Indians. 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.

On a visit last fall to a tribal college in North Dakota, Hipp saw four community gardens on campus, and students reported gardens starting up in the numerous tribal communities that send youth to the college. (American Indians are raising and growing just about everything you can imagine, from livestock to poultry and produce to popcorn.) Among Hipp’s goals is to fuel young people’s interest in these types of projects, she says.

“How do we keep them somehow engaged in food and agriculture? That’s exciting to me,” she says. “All I needed to do was to be supportive of them. If we let them fully blossom, they can do so much.”

Do you live nearby an American Indian community? What agriculture or food projects is it involved in?