Native American Tribes Look to Sustainable Farming

Sustainable farming means local food and communities supporting Native Americans.

| November/December 2015

  • The Food Is Our Medicine community garden, in partnership with Cattaraugus Community Center, contains 15 boxes for volunteer groups and three for the youth program.
    Photo by Ken Paker/FIOM
  • Troy “Bear” Williams shows off the Seneca Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) for Food Is Our Medicine.
    Photo by Ken Parker/FIOM
  • A taste of fresh produce is part of the Choctaw Fresh Produce tours, conducted by Dick Hoy.
    Photo by Dick Hoy; Choctaw Fresh Produce
  • Heath and Azalia Garlow participate in the FIOM’s Indigenous Food Challenge.
    Photo by Ken Parker/FIOM

With the seeds he sows, Barry Dana is reconnecting with a farming culture that predates European colonization of North America.

Dana, a farmer and former chief of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, has been steadily working on two goals – to be healthier, and to strengthen his ties with his cultural heritage. In a quest to better his diet, he began to discuss with other farmers and gardeners the best way to eat well.

“The conversation just wandered back that maybe the best food is the most traditional food,” Dana says. He soon obtained some heirloom vegetable seed, which predated large-scale European settlements, from an Abenaki tribe in New Hampshire. With a $300 grant, he distributed the seed to five others in the Penobscot community, all of whom are growing in careful conditions to preserve the genetic integrity of the varieties. Dana has been focusing on cultivating corn, squash and pumpkin, considered traditional staples of the Penobscot Nation.

“‘The Three Sisters,’ it’s called,” he says. Indeed, it’s a slight twist on the conventional three sisters garden of corn, squash and beans.

Across the U.S., Native American tribes are undertaking projects to strengthen tribal growing capacity. These projects, both large and small, hold out the possibility of providing better access to healthy food in remote areas, strengthening tribal economies, and preserving Native American cultural traditions.

The report “Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities”, prepared by Echo Hawk Consulting, finds that there are many small farming initiatives under way to strengthen Native American food systems, including:

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