Winona LaDuke wears a lot of hats. The 53-year-old member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabe in Minnesota is an activist, a mother and an occasional political candidate. (You may recognize her as Ralph Nader's vice presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000.) The author of six books, she is also the executive director of two nonprofits: Honor the Earth, which supports indigenous environmental justice, and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which aims to recover the land and the culture of the Anishinabe people at the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.
Justice, land, culture — all concepts that have a connection with food, which makes sense. A focal point of LaDuke's recent efforts is food sovereignty, or as she put it in a recent essay, "the ability to feed your people." She says colonialism has robbed native communities like hers of much of their historic foods, not to mention their culture and autonomy. "As Shawnee scholar Steven Newcomb once pointed out to me, the word colonialism has at its root the same word as ' colon.' In other words, it means to digest — colonialism is the digestion of one people by another — in military, social, political, economic and food system terms."
A recent study at the White Earth reservation revealed the depth of the problem. The community spends about $8 million a year on food, but $7 million of that is spent off the reservation. What little is still spent on the reservation is for foods with little nutritional value. "The money we spent on-reservation was largely sucked up by convenience stories, where we purchased really cool stuff like pop, chips, pizzas to heat up, and baked goods," she wrote. Not only does this create a drain on the community's economy, it also reduces its ability to be self-reliant and creates soaring rates of diabetes, which plagues the reservation's residents.
To reverse the trends, LaDuke advocates restoring systems that have long been considered sacred. "Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots," said the Harvard graduate at a recent TEDx Twin Cities talk. "That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships."
Rather than rely on food growth hundreds or thousands of miles away from patented and genetically modified seeds, LaDuke has been working to restore old, diverse varieties of foods. One food plant she has successfully brought back is called Bear Island Flint Corn. Barely grown a few years ago, she received a few handfuls from a grower. Now the reservation has entire fields of this hardy variety, which can be grown without irrigation, is able to withstand Minnesota's frosts and doesn't break in high winds — weather conditions under which Monsanto's Roudup-Ready corn fails.
"Our plan on this is to grow as much corn as our ancestors did, and the foods our ancestors grew," LaDuke wrote. "It turns out, these foods are roughly twice as high in protein, and two to three times more nutritious than anything you can get at the store."
She says this not only allows tribes to take control of their own food and economies, it also has a potentially global effect. "If we moved from industrialized agriculture to re-localized organic agriculture, we could sequester about one quarter of the carbon moving into the air and destroying our glaciers, oceans, forests and lands." On the reverse side of the equation, she says that diverse crops are more likely to survive in this time of changing climate, when many corn fields in the Midwest are suffering debilitation droughts.
As LaDuke writes, "Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as indigenous peoples, and a way, one of the most surefooted ways, to restore our relationship with the world around us." It comes from the past, but it may also provide a key to a healthier future.
Watch a video of LaDuke's TEDx Twin Cities talk in 2012 below:
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