Native Food Producers Signal the Way into the Future


Indeed, we live in strange times. For the first time in the history of humankind, most of our citizens could not raise, catch, hunt, gather, nor prepare a nutritious diet if their lives depended on it. Which they do. As if that alone were not a perilous enough prospect, observation suggests many couldn’t care less.

Against the hollow prospect of acquiring one’s sustenance through a drive-up window, there stand those, steadily increasing in organization and activism, who value food as a defining element of their cultures and traditions. And, as I found out firsthand at last weekendís Native Foods Celebration and Retreat held at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, these folks are not giving it up without a fight.

In North America as elsewhere, the centuries-old fight by native people for cultural survival is being waged in croplands, forests, rivers, kitchens, markets, and governments. Throughout the length and breadth of this continent, Indian economies have for eons thrived on intimate knowledge of, and respect for, the natural order of their surroundings. Now, producers and activists from tribes as diverse in their lifeways as the ecosystems in which they reside are coming together to develop the strength and strategies needed to overcome the destructive realities of the privatization and industrialization of food production and markets.

Our family’s hearts swelled Sunday morning as our cousin Paul Ninham, council member for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, delivered the traditional blessing of Thanksgiving prior to the opening address by Winona LaDuke. Ms. LaDuke, whose achievements and national honors have accumulated beyond convenient listing since her Harvard days, is Anishinaabeg (sometimes called Ojibwe or Chippewa) and founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) on that reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

Centering initially in the 1980s around the Anishinaabeg’s battle to perpetuate their sacred strain of naturally-occurring manoomin (rice) in a market increasingly dominated by paddy-grown hybrids, WELRP's efforts have adapted to include a successful campaign to get the Minnesota state legislature to declare a two-year moratorium on any future effort to genetically “engineer” wild rice. Consistent with an awareness of the interconnectedness of all aspects of a healthy community, White Earth's mission also includes components in the recovery and restoration of aboriginal lands and waters, community gardening, animal husbandry, reintroduction of native sturgeon, alternative energy, marketing of locally-produced food and products, and more. Through it all, there runs the current of community education, especially of youth. You can learn about WELRP (and a lot more) at

Participant/exhibitors from many tribes offered the flavors of their traditional cultures at Sunday’s celebration: salmon from the Nez Perce, piki bread from Tesuque Pueblo, Quechua quinoa from Bolivia, bison stew from Picuris Pueblo. I tried not to make a pig of myself.

On Monday, members of a host of participating organizations assembled for discussions on how to network in broadening the message that securing local control over food - food sovereignty ñ is a fundamental ingredient of community security.

Our family was again honored when Cousin Paul’s wife, Jill Martus-Ninham (Pala of California), served as facilitator for the closing strategy session. An existing alliance will be strengthened with the burgeoning International Slow Food movement (, whose 2006 meeting in Turin, Italy, brought together 9,000 people from 150 nations: farmers, fishermen, breeders (including Tracey and Tom Delehanty of Socorro, New Mexico!), artisan food producers, cooks, university professors, and thousands of observers.

In addition, support from tribal leaders will be sought at upcoming meetings of the National Congress of American Indians, this country’s largest Native American government organization. NCAI delegates have already signed on to a declaration supporting the preservation of native seeds, two-thirds of which have vanished since the European invasion.

Indigenous tribes, long considered dead by the mainstream, offer critical insight and know-how for the survival of all those who would live on this continent in the future. The age of industrial agriculture, built on an ill-considered dogma of speed, convenience, and profit, continues to lash out, only now from its deathbed. The stage is set for a return to proven traditions, based on respect for place and season. As Winona LaDuke says, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Dave Wheelock

Dave Wheelock is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and a professional university rugby coach in Socorro, New Mexico.  His Pencil Warrior column appears in the Socorro Mountain Mail.