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The Leading Voices in Food

E9: A’dae Romero-Briones on First Nations Food Systems

Hosted by: Sarah Zoubek (Duke)
January 7, 2019

What can food teach us about our community lifeways, past and present? Community food life ways or one way that first nations tribes can regain food sovereignty in the face of federal policies that have diminished native lands, imposed a non-native diet, and made it difficult to retain native languages. This is a core part of the work of today’s guest on the Leading Voices in Food A’dae Romero-Briones.

A’dae Romero-Briones is the director of the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Program at the First Nations Development Institute. The Institute’s goal is to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy native communities, in part by preserving native food ways. She is also the granddaughter of a Pueblo farmer and was born in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. A’dae earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in public policy from Princeton University and a law doctorate from Arizona State University’s College of law. In addition to her LLM degree in food and agricultural law from the University of Arkansas, she has written extensively about food safety, the produce safety rule and tribes, and the protection of tribal traditional foods.

Interview Summary

Could you describe the phrase community food lifeways for our listeners?

Absolutely. So when we think about food, we usually think about it as this separate entity. But when we’re talking about community food lifeways, we’re talking about the integration of food in virtually every institution that makes up a society. So whether it be your political institution, your spiritual institutions, your economic institutions, all of those institutions in some part has some relationship to food. So when we’re talking about food lifeways, we’re not only talking about having dinner at the table with your family, but we’re talking about how that meal will affect everything else in that society.

You were honored by the White House and the USDA is a Champion of Change for Agriculture in 2014. What motivated you to engage in agricultural law work amongst the indigenous communities?

Growing up in Cochiti where there’s subsistence farmers, there have been quite a number of statutes, probably in the last 30 years that have made it harder and harder to be a Pueblo farmer. And so it was just a natural progression for me to want to perpetuate Pueblo lifeways and food ways and sort of protect my community from those intrusions. So agricultural law was a natural step for me.

What kind of threats are we talking about?

Indigenous communities face all kinds of threats. Not only internally but externally. We can start with a whole bunch of federal laws that affect how indigenous people can access their foods even to the point of what they actually eat in their communities and everything from the Food Safety Modernization Act to maybe Farm-to-School programs that focus on bringing food to the reservation rather than allowing traditional foods in the schools.

And when you think about children being in the school for eight hours a day, sometimes more, that’s the primary place where they’re going to have food. If you don’t have traditional foods from that community in that space, these children are going to grow up without having the luxury and the liberty of those traditional foods daily. All the way to how water comes into the reservation and whether that’s clean and how that water affects the food that’s grown in those communities; or even how the federal government or state governments manage their natural resources, whether that be hunting elk and deer, how the management plans like for abalone and seaweed affect how those traditional food systems are accessed by tribal folks who depend on them. So there’s numerous threats and food and agricultural law is probably one of the most complicated sectors of law because there’s so many entities that have their hands in how those resources are managed.

So within that agricultural law space, what would you say are some of the greatest challenges in your work at First Nations Development Institute? And especially in regards to economic development and an asset management for the indigenous communities engaged in that food and Ag work.

I think the hardest challenge is articulating the differences in how indigenous people view an economy. So mainstream society views an economy in terms of monetary values of commodities, for example. Indigenous communities who have established economies for generations, view an economy as a system in which a community manages its resources and not necessarily tie it to monetary values. And sometimes that’s really hard for people to understand–that value is just not a dollar sign. That value can be measured in other ways, like social impact, or shared community resources. And those are much harder to articulate and harder for people to understand. So that’s the greatest challenge, I think, for us.

So what does that look like, in terms of not being a traditional economy valuing money? Someone from the outside might think oh so you’re just not making any money. How do you live? How would you respond to an outsider’s viewpoint on that?

So let’s take water, for example. In a mainstream economy, the person who captures that water at the source is sort of the owner of that resource. But in an indigenous community, where water is considered an entity or a being or a relationship, they are member of the community. So in that sense, you can’t put a dollar figure on that life of that resource or that being because there’s a relationship in the community that’s much more valuable than any dollar figure you can put on it. And so what we normally think of like commodities or even resources in the mainstream economy sometimes are considered members of our community, like beings. And so that I think is the primary difference. Our community is very relationship based even to non-human entities like water or land or the animals or the plants. And really we can’t put dollar figures on those beings. Those are members of our community essentially.

So we asked earlier challenges, but what does that orientation mean to you in terms of the opportunities that exist?

There are so many opportunities! I think that indigenous communities have so much to share and so much to offer the world about how we view community resources like water, like land, like animals. And so for us it’s an incredible journey to share those stories with the world. And the other challenge I think is finding spaces where indigenous people can tell those stories safely in respectable conversations, because oftentimes when two entities are using two different languages, it can become a stressful situation. So the opportunity is really creating those spaces where we can share our stories with others who are willing to listen.

What are some spaces that you’ve found are amenable to that conversation?

Well, I think I personally am not the creator of those spaces. I think a lot of our young people are the creator of those spaces. So we have this new generation of very tech savvy people who are creating and carving out their space in the social media world. We have groups like the I Collective, which is group of indigenous chefs who are basically going around the country and serving indigenous meals to people who normally wouldn’t have access to them. And so I think those are two new spaces that are definitely being developed right now by young people in our community.

What would your response be to folks who are really not speaking that same language, who kind of can’t grip or understand of a more non-profit-based approach or commodity driven approach to utilizing those resources to grow our food? A lot of people probably would say, well, if you’re not making money, how are you sustaining your family and if everybody owns the river, then how do you decide who can use the water and how? What’s your response to those folks?

I would say spend some time in an indigenous community. My grandma used to tell me that the easiest way to learn about how a person views the world is have a shared meal with them and their families. And those are very complicated questions and I think indigenous people have been finding ways to answer those questions over generations. And so we have a responsibility to each other, and to that river to figure out the best possible solution to ensure its continuation as well as the continuation of the community that depends on it. And so there are ways to do it and indigenous communities have found many different ways to do it. Wherever a person is most likely there’s an indigenous community close by. I would say sit down and have a meal with them, go with them acorn gathering, or maybe find out what traditional foods that are important to them and start there to begin those lessons.

How does your spiritual and faith tradition inform your work? You’ve talked a lot about community, but how that plays into your life in the law and working at this intersection with the food system but also with law, so how does faith come into that?

So I grew up with my grandparents and one of the primary lessons that have stayed with me through adulthood was from my grandpa. He used to say when we plant our corn seeds, that have been passed down from generation to generation, you’re not only planting that seed so that food sustains your body, you’re literally eating or digesting all the prayers that your ancestors put in that one seed. And so those traditional foods and those traditional sources are the source, our spiritual connection to our ancestors and to our earth. And so why would I not protect that using every available tool, including the law

You’ve done a lot specifically on food safety and you mentioned the Food Safety Modernization Act. So what’s an example of why that matters to the communities you serve?

Thank you for asking them about food safety. I don’t think it’s like a hot topic and agricultural world, but I love food safety. And part of the reason I love it so much is because I think there’s a chasm where food safety is often looked at from a science point of view, kind of at the back end, sort of. Food safety in mainstream mainly looks at like sanitizing everything like soon as it comes from the field, sanitize it and make sure it’s clean. Indigenous approaches to food safety are more long term. How do we look at the water that goes into our food? How do we ensure the soil that is healthy goes into our food so that food is grown from healthy place with healthy water and healthy soil. Then people are going to be healthy. So it’s a much more long-term view. My thesis was basically about these two different worldviews and I wanted to ensure tribes knew that they can carve out a space in the food safety world to practice their version of food safety. And part of that is enacting their own tribal food code laws that address food safety. Very few tribes have enacted food and agricultural codes, but they can. They are sovereign governments who are able to enact their own food codes.

So within those food codes, what’s a couple of examples of things you might see there that might be different from provisions in the Food Safety Modernization Act or elsewhere? What makes those unique relative to the outside world?

So I think the primary difference would be the authority. Right now the Food Safety Modernization Act puts the authority with the FDA or the State Department of Health or the equivalent for tribal communities. The authority lies with the tribal government and the tribal government can exercise who licenses, for instance, community kitchens, or what kind of standards farmers have to enact in order to ensure that the produce is safe, or what kind of water standards are enacted to ensure the water into the reservation is clean. And so those are standards are much greater in tribal communities than they would be in mainstream communities just because we want to ensure that all the inputs that go into our food are safe.

Going back to this issue of faith, in your view, what are the unique gifts of your particular faith or spiritual tradition as it relates to this food systems work and these food policy conversations?

So I, I would say the gifts that indigenous people have to offer the food space is that we have learned that food itself is like an indicator. Like when somebody in our community doesn’t have access to food, or when the food is not culturally appropriate or when the food is being hoarded by one group or another–we know that something in our society is amiss. So food is the indicator that ensures that our society is running smoothly. Food is the indicator not only for like our physical being, but like our spiritual being, our political being, our economic being. All of those have some relationship to food and indigenous people have figured that out. So when we look at like acorns or seaweed or elk, there’s ways that we read this tribute, that food among the community to ensure that everybody can partake and has access and so that ensures the health of all our institutions in our community. And that ensures that we as a community are healthy enough to perpetuate into future years and future generations.

It sounds like equal access is a really big pillar within. How do you go about attempting to accomplish equal access?

The most simple answer to that is first you’d have to know who’s in your community, right? There’s very intimate gatherings that we have, I think any indigenous community has, which is very different than like a mainstream neighborhood. Sometimes people don’t even know who their neighbors are, so much less know if they’re hungry or if they have access to food. But when you have those intimate gatherings consistently and community members are present, you know who those people are and you know what kind of state or life they’re having. And so when you know that you kind of have a responsibility to respond to them and to make sure that they have access.


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