A new agriculture fund is providing grants not only to support the success of Native American food producers like farmers, ranchers, and fishers, but to also support Tribal nations and communities in their efforts to revitalize ancient food systems throughout the United States.
The Native American Agriculture Fund, a private charitable spend-down trust, came about as part of the settlement of the lawsuit Keepseagle v. Vilsack, a case in which plaintiffs alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against Native farmers and ranchers in farm loan programs. After decades of litigation, the Fund was created to address the mission of supporting Native American farmers and ranchers. “Native American farmers and ranchers require support, just as food people across the country require support. Their ability to feed their communities is contingent on understanding the unique historical, legal, environmental, and cultural context of the lands in which they live and work,” says Janie Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. “The Fund can’t provide all the support they need—there is not enough money for that. What we believe we can do is affect change on a more systemic level while leveraging this opportunity at a very critical time to strengthen our opportunities today and support future generations to come,” says Hipp.
Throughout its 20-year lifespan, the Fund will provide grants to eligible entities which include nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, tribal governments, and community development financial institutions. These entities provide business assistance, agricultural education, technical support, and advocacy services to Native American farmers and ranchers to support their engagement in agriculture for forthcoming generations. In December 2019, the Fund selected its inaugural round of grant recipients, funding over 80 eligible entities from across the United States. “We’re in this really exciting and momentous time and it will be incredible to see what the Fund can do to assist Native communities in sustaining our efforts and legacies,” says Hipp.
Hipp tells Food Tank that there is a much longer history behind discrimination against Native communities that everyone must learn when entering into a space that advocates for Native food sovereignty. “Indigenous people have been killed, ostracized, ignored, removed, and relocated from our original homelands. Indigenous nations had the lands we originally lived upon taken from us and it is a painful reality that continues to this very day. Every single thing that could be done to ignore and destroy our foodways has happened over centuries. And it is still happening to this very day…” says Hipp. “There’s a long history that sits around Indigenous foodways and understanding and recognizing that history and your own role in perpetuating wrongs of today is important.”
“I have a problem with using the term indigenous foodways without being informed of the breadth and depth of these foodways–when people talk about Indigenous foodways in a loose or uninformed way, they believe they are invoking ‘one story’ when there are multitudes of stories. It also invokes one time period when we’re talking millennia, and the colonization of our lands as well as the ongoing degradation of today. We have to get specific as we work in this space,” Hipp tells Food Tank. Because factors like climate, terrain, soil, water, and culture have differed, indigenous foodways across the United States developed in different ways and included different diets and agricultural processes. “It is so nuanced and so unique and so deep in a historical context that if people or groups who want to have a part in this, they need to be ready for a history lesson,” says Hipp.
In 2018, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—which joined over 200 federally recognized tribes in the U.S.— pushed to include provisions in the final Farm Bill like including tribes and tribal producers in USDA programs and ensuring healthy food systems in Indian Country. Congress included dozens of the demanded provisions based on the Coalition’s efforts. “We actually have gotten more done in this last Congress in this last Farm Bill than the last 25 years [of policy],” says Hipp.
Hipp tells Food Tank that the Native Farm Bill Coalition was entirely driven by Native people and their Tribal governments, and that participation from key partners in the food movement was nonexistent or very minimal. “Food, foodways, and agriculture issues are extremely high interest within our communities, very much on the lips of every community I know and every Native government leader I know. This explosion of attention to Indigenous foodways within our communities is happening because we must do this,” says Hipp. “Our allies in this work were not from food or anti-hunger movements; our allies were from those who believe that we have the inherent power to feed our communities should be the drivers of solutions to food security for our people.”
In non-Native communities, Hipp notes that allies and partners in Native food sovereignty efforts are working with the people and not on behalf of them. “If the non-Native communities in want to work with us in the agriculture and food space and seek to be allies, they’re going to have to show and learn what it means to be good allies,” says Hipp. “This includes, first and foremost, being invited and trusted to learn from Native communities. Then, allies must not impose their own beliefs or ways of talking about foodways on Native communities. Allies must stand alongside Native communities to preserve their foodways and work to lift us up.”
“Allies must resist the temptation to perpetuate a savior complex, imposing their own methods on individuals who they have been living in concert with for millennia. Non-Native folks need to be willing to learn from us because those ancient foodways and methods to thrive in and of themselves are a measure of Native resiliency as they have been passed down through generations standing up against a multitude of genocidal efforts. It is because of the visionary efforts and careful preservations led by our Ancestors that we are able to carry this work on to this very day. That is powerful–we take it seriously and see that is is our turn to carry that work. Getting it right is our only option.” Hipp tells Food Tank. “Indigenous foodways are embedded in our communities, they are our living legacy and more than commodities in our culture, they are our greatest teachers bestowing many lessons for how to live with one another and on the lands in which we derive from.”