Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

From fishing rights off Nova Scotia, to grazing in Oklahoma and salmon habitats on the Klamath River, tribal groups are reclaiming their land and foodways.

The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Last November, escalating tensions between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people exercising their fishing rights and commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia resulted in an unexpected finale: A coalition of Mi’kmaq tribes bought 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods, effectively giving them control of the billion-dollar company and one of the largest seafood businesses in North America.

The Mi’kmaq people, who compose 13 distinct nations in Nova Scotia alone, have relied on fishing for tens of thousands of years and were granted treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” by Canada’s Supreme Court. Despite these protections, the Mi’kmaq faced resistance, hostility, and even violence from commercial fishermen when exercising their rights.

By becoming majority owners of Clearwater Seafoods, the Mi’kmaq gained full ownership of Clearwater’s offshore fishing licenses, which allow them to harvest lobster, scallop, crab, and clams in a large area extending from the Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel off Cape Breton. Tribal leaders hope the purchase guarantees the food security and economic sustainability of Mi’kmaq communities for generations.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists across the world stood in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq and applauded their unexpected victory. The deal represents a growing trend: Indigenous people are regaining access to—and control of—their traditional foodways.

For centuries, Native Americans in the United States have endured countless atrocities, from massacre to forced removal from their ancestral lands by the federal government. This separation from the land is inextricably tied to the loss of traditional foodways, culture, and history.

Now, there is growing momentum behind the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. Over the past few decades, Native American tribes in the U.S. have been fighting for the return of ancestral lands for access to traditional foodways through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure—and increasingly seeing success.

In recent years, the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California secured ownership of its ancestral lands and is working to restore its marine habitats; the nearby Yurok Tribe fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River and has plans to reconnect with salmon, its traditional food source; and the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has cleaned up contaminated land to make way for agriculture and cattle businesses.

“A big part of [land reclamation] is for food sovereignty,” stressed Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We depend on the land to eat, to gain protein. It’s what our bodies were accustomed to, it’s what we as a people are accustomed to—working out in the landscape. It’s where we feel home. It’s good for our mental health. Oftentimes, folks have to be reminded that [food] is our original medicine.”

At the heart of the tribes’ different approaches to food sovereignty is a shared common goal: reclaiming ancestral lands for habitat restoration, access to healthy, culturally relevant diets, and economic opportunity.

In Eureka, an Unprecedented Land Return—and the Restoration of Marine Habitats

Between California’s northern coastline and the redwood forests, the Wiyot Tribe has practiced its way of life for centuries, celebrating ceremonial dances on Tuluwat Island, its place of origin. The island sits in the Arcata Bay of the present-day city of Eureka and provided access to essential nourishment, including oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.

A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

“For us, it’s a giant Costco. Everything that we needed was right there,” explained Ted Hernandez, Wiyot tribal chairman and cultural director, in a recent interview.

That was until 1860, when gold-rush era settlers ambushed and massacred between 80 and 250 Wiyots peacefully gathered on Tuluwat Island for a renewal ceremony. The surviving Wiyots were forced off the island and moved to Fort Humboldt, where Wiyots say that nearly half of the tribe died of exposure and starvation. They were then forcibly relocated to reservations at Klamath, Hoopa, Smith River, and Round Valley. In the early 1900s, a local church group bought land to house the Wiyots on what is known today as the Old Reservation. But after briefly losing federal recognition and a lack of potable water, the tribe moved to the Table Bluff Reservation, where it currently resides.

In 2000, after an acre and a half of the ancestral Tuluwat Island went up for sale, tribal elder Cheryl Seidner organized fundraisers to buy it for $106,000. This purchase gave the tribe momentum and hope that it could secure more land. Seidner led the Wiyots in negotiations with Eureka city leaders, and the city agreed to return most of the island to the tribe in 2019.

“With Tuluwat, it’s the first example of a city ever repatriating land to a tribe, which I think is great—but it’s also pretty sad that that never happens,” said Adam Canter, a natural resource specialist for the Wiyot Tribe.

Since then, the Wiyot people have used local community partners, volunteers, and state and federal resources to clean up the island, which was left in toxic disarray after years as the site of a shipyard for non-Native commercial fishermen. “There was a huge [Environmental Protection Agency] cleanup there,” said Canter, who leads the restoration effort. “The soil was contaminated with dioxins and pentachlorophenol oils, and all kinds of bad stuff.”

Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

But this hasn’t deterred the Wiyots, who are 600 members strong and have a vision of restoring the crucial marine and land habitats that have for so long nourished the tribe. The Wiyots hope to improve health outcomes for tribal members and create a sustainable food system that emphasizes food sovereignty and security. “Now we’re in the process of completing that healing process by bringing back the traditional plants that were . . . in the waterways so our eels, and our oysters can grow back in the bay,” explained Hernandez. “And once that’s complete, then we can start the healing process for the whole world. But in order for us to do that, we need our traditional foods.”

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In her role as natural resource technician-in-training, Wiyot tribal member Hilanea Wilkinson is working on removing invasive species and reintroducing native, edible plants to the island. She sees her work as even more urgent in light of the ongoing pandemic. “It has really shed light on the need for sustainable food for lots of reservations and Native communities—all communities,” she said. “Native communities are in more rural areas and don’t have easily accessible grocery stores.”

The Wiyot Tribe is also bolstering its food sovereignty movement through education. Currently, it’s fundraising to build the Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop in partnership with Humboldt State University’s (HSU) Native American Studies program. The goal is to indigenize the HSU campus and inspire future generations of Indigenous botanists and biologists who can help preserve Native American communities’ food security and sovereignty.

California’s Largest Tribe Restores Crucial Salmon Habitats

About 100 miles north of the Wiyot, the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest, is working to restore once-thriving salmon populations, which are culturally and spiritually significant in addition to being a major food source.

The Yurok people reside along the Klamath River, which was once a bustling artery that connected Northern California tribes and provided a food system of salmon, berries, elk, and acorns. Since the construction of the Klamath River Dams in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power and farmland irrigation, the salmon populations have been devastated to near-extinction. Most notorious was the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 34,000 salmon died from infection in a disaster caused by warm water temperatures and low dam water flow rates (Some counts say as many as 70,000 salmon died.)

Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Since the early 2000s, the tribe has built coalitions with local community groups and advocated for dam removal to state and federal authorities. They recently celebrated a historic agreement to remove four obsolete dams along the Klamath River (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle in Oregon) to clear the river and revive the traditional salmon runs.

If all goes according to plan, the four dams will be officially decommissioned by 2023 in what would be the world’s largest dam removal project.

“We know from generations past that if we let the salmon die, then we follow along with [them],” said Myers. “The median [household] income on the upper reservation where I live is $11,000. The protein that salmon provides is actual sustenance people need to live.” (In California, the median household income is $75,235, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

While awaiting the final green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on dam removal, the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish, and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources to build the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary—a permanently protected portion of the salmon’s river habitat—and restore native plants to the area.

They’ve also secured control of more than 60,000 acres of ancestral lands, through both direct purchase and a land transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy.

Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)

Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)

Ultimately, the Yurok Tribe hopes to become a fully sovereign nation that can sustain its people, both physically and economically, from the Klamath River and its salmon. “There is a way to survive and live and thrive here in the basin that isn’t just hunter-gatherer,” Myers said. “Because we used to have . . . an economy that was also based on salmon, and we feel like we could get there again.”

Restoring a Toxic Wasteland for Cattle Grazing and Agriculture

Across the country, in Northeast Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe has been working on land cleanup for its own food sovereignty initiatives. The Quapaw, or O-Gah-Pah (meaning “downstream people”), were a plains tribe that inhabited present-day Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When the Quapaw were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834, they could no longer practice their traditional hunting and gathering, according to Devon Mihesuah, co-editor of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States. Out of necessity, they became ranchers, like many others relegated to reservations.

In the 1890s, lead and zinc were discovered on Quapaw land. In the documentary “Tar Creek,” Quapaw members described how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior often leased this land to mining companies without tribal approval, or through coercion. These companies mined lead and zinc to supply the war efforts until the 1970s. The mines, now long-abandoned, have polluted local water and land, leading to developmental delays in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

While the local residents of the nearby towns all received buyouts to relocate, the Quapaw people are still on their land and determined to make it hospitable again. The tribe secured a contract with the EPA more than a decade ago to remediate the land at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and repurpose the land for agriculture. The tribe has also seen recent success protecting tribal land sovereignty in Oklahoma.

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“We are reclaiming it little by little and regaining land. And we’re doing whatever we can [to] remediate and put it back into ag use,” says Mitchell Albright, Quapaw tribe member and agriculture director.

Today, the restored land is used for more than 1,000 cattle and bison grazing under the Quapaw Cattle Company. The Quapaw have also been able to grow row crops (canola, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and wheat primarily used for animal feed) on restored lands, and they have built greenhouses to grow heirloom, pesticide-free vegetables. In 2017, the Quapaw Tribe also opened the country’s first tribally owned, USDA-approved cattle processing plant.

With rural geography, the Quapaw know the difficulties in transporting mainstream foods to their tribe. That’s why their priority is self-sufficiency, along with cultural preservation and job creation.

Through their farm, they supply the casino and restaurants located on the reservation. They also boast a coffee roaster, craft beer production, and a strong honeybee pollination program. Albright recalls that when he took over as ag director around eight years ago, there were around 15 employees. Today, there are upwards of 100.

“There’s gonna be a time—maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point—[when] maybe you can’t go to Walmart or your local grocery store and get what you need to survive,” Albright said. “And that’s what I love about Native people when they come together. They come up with ideas [that] can feed our people.”

The Future of Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Myers sees the land reclamation work of his and other tribes as more pressing than ever in light of climate change. “[We are at] the frontlines of this war to reclaim our history, our land, our culture . . . We have a system that can not only be saved but restored. And not just kept from going extinct, but being able to flourish in abundance. We’re ready for some victories.”

Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy Rep. Deb Haaland's office)

Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Deb Haaland’s office)

The confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to lead the Department of the Interior is a huge symbol of hope to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, Haaland has firsthand understanding of Indigenous issues such as land sovereignty. Although the #LandBack movement wants Haaland to endorse land reparations for Indigenous people, and she has so far refrained from doing so, Myers and others say her confirmation is enormously significant.

Myers is optimistic about the way forward. “We’ve gone a few hundred years never having anyone in that seat that understood the tribes from a member’s perspective. And now we do,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, things are going to get better because there’s an understanding that was never there before.”

This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Quapah phonetical and to update the name of Western Rivers Conservancy.

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Melissa Montalvo is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on the food and agriculture industry, cantinas, and all things Mexico. Read more >

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