E21: Colby Duren on Challenges to First Nations Food Sovereignty

Monday, April 15, 2019
Related to: Community & Economic Development | Equity, Race & Food Justice | First Nations Food Issues |

Extreme poverty, the loss of fertile lands, and lack of access to traditional foods have caused many Native Americans to suffer from diet related problems, including food insecurity, obesity and diabetes in stunning numbers. Nearly 16% of Native Americans, for example, live with type two diabetes, more than double the percentage of Caucasians. These are but some of the challenges that occupy our guest, attorney Colby Duren.


Interview Summary

Colby Duren is Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture initiative at the University of Arkansas, Office of Economic Development. He specializes in federal Indian law and policy with a specific focus on food, agriculture, nutrition, natural resources and economic development, which includes work on three different versions of the farm bill. Part of his farm bill work includes supporting the native farm bill coalition, a new effort to give Native Americans a strong united voice to advance a common farm bill agenda benefiting Indian country.

So the website of your program says “we promote tribal sovereignty through food and agriculture.” Would you please explain the concept of tribal sovereignty and the historical factors that have shaped?

Absolutely. Tribes are essentially governments and were the very first governments located in North America, Central America and South America. And so, we talk about the idea of tribal sovereignty as truly that acknowledgement that tribal governments must have the ability to be able to set their own path, make decisions regarding their own tribal citizenry and how to best be able to serve them. And so when looking at how it was sort of shaped, when you look at some of the particular history of past colonizers coming over from Europe interacting with tribal governments, there was sort of that initial recognition of being able to say that there were people here that there are governments here, and then how that interaction kind of play, you can see that of venturing into different agreements, entering into treaties, working with tribal governments and being able to say what are the different things that need to be done to try to adjust the situation of colonists coming over.

There were a lot of complex, very strong indigenous food systems that included farming, irrigation, subsistence, hunting and gathering. And so there were a lot of different types of agriculture production and food production and food system and trade that was going on at the same time. Entering into some of the different treaties, there was that acknowledgement of tribes with governments. But that was sort of sidelined with the introduction of European style models of agriculture and agreements to have access to land, and to some land and removal. And through time this became forced removal, military forced, forced agreements, forced treaties. You start to be able to see the shift and change.

There was always a sort of interaction between the United States government and tribal governments in various different ways that condition that tribes had some type of governmental status had land rights as well, too. And it was really kind of the idea of saying, particularly for the people that were coming over to be able to say, well, what are the things that we need to be able to establish ourselves? And so you see a lot of back and forth interaction. So we have the federal government coming and entering into agreements, not upholding those agreements, and then making other determinations.

There was also the civilian saying we want to enter into an agreement and then go our separate ways. Then there was the idea that the federal government wants to enable people to assimilate into European culture in the United States. And then there was being able to say, well, maybe we should go back to where it was. So there is always a sort of back and forth, which has created a very complex policy structure. But the most underlying and important part is that tribes as sovereign entities need to have the ability and authority and protections to set what they want to be able to do and to help protect their own citizens.

Colby, how can addressing food and agriculture help in this context?

One of my friends and someone that we’ve worked with for a long time is the executive director of Intertribal Agriculture Council. For over 30 years he has always said that you’re not really truly sovereign until you have the ability to be able to feed yourself. So by helping further and advance tribal sovereignty within the space of food and agriculture, it helps to provide strong ways of self determination and strong tribal self governance to determine what are some of the best forms or methods. And I think that what you see a lot is that tribal governments, as the people who serve their citizens, are in the best position to be able to make determinations about what is necessary. And that is being able to make determinations regarding the types of food, traditional foods, being able to help protect and support traditional and cultural practices within that as well too. Looking at ways to be able to help support appropriate development in areas that need to be able to have that, and to be able to help provide jobs and a strong and vibrant tribal community.

What are some of the main things that you are working on to try to help accomplish this goal?

So, our initiative does a lot of work on tribal government sovereignty. We work directly with tribes, tribal food producers and tribal organizations to further this goal. We’re looking at trying to build strong healthy food systems. Some of the things we do produce safety training for native produce growers, understand some of the issues that come under compliance and look at it from the idea of what does a tribe, what does the tribal producer need to know about that rule? What are some of the different concerns that come up against – particularly when looking at tribal government sovereignty. We also do a native youth in agriculture summit and we’re entering our sixth year. This takes some of the youth in tribal communities, brings them to Arkansas, and goes through some additional educational opportunities. We try to show them some of the different things that are going on. We work on some projects, and then they take those experiences and that information back to their communities and continue to do some incredible work.

We also try to help native food businesses and tribal food enterprises scale up and take that next step in food business. We’re looking at how to make a strong economic and sustainable economic development opportunity able to employ people and to build out a strong food system. And additionally, we serve as the research partner in the native Farmville coalition, which was started in October 2017, for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. This is located just outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. Through their native health campaign, they were looking at ways to try to address some systemic issues of food, food insecurity, access to healthy and traditional foods and tribal communities. And they wanted to look at the Farm Bill and different ways of making some federal policy changes, which would hopefully be able to help support tribal sovereignty.

Colby, let’s come back to the Farm Bill in just a moment. But before that, I’d like to ask a question that’s rooted in history so, many Native American populations were moved involuntarily from some of the nation’s most fertile lands to some of the nation’s most infertile lands. Is there any way of correcting that or how does that issue get addressed in the work that you and others do?

It’s a great question. One of the issues that really came up when you’re looking at forced removal and taking off to some of the different lands, you do see a movement of tribal governments trying to be able to purchase land back. That I would say is probably one of the tougher issues that impacts not only food and agriculture, but also tribal government. Sovereignty and the ability to assert regulatory jurisdiction to protect land, to protect water after the period of a forced removal. There was a period of allotment where many tribes were relocated to, were allotted or broken up into smaller segments that were taken out of sort of the trust status that the protected status and agreements that tribal governments entered into with the federal government–that allowed that land to have some type of protection from alienation. And so when that land was opened up, you had a lot of non Indians coming in to settle that land, to farm it, to work it. We also had that land being given to folks in fee. And so sometimes that land was either sold or it was leased out to non Indian farmers. And a lot of times when that happens, it’s done on pennies on the dollar. And so when that happens, typically when someone doesn’t quite own the land or have that sort of equity or status, it’s not theirs. They are not going to take care of it, they’re just going to focus on the production that they need to have to sustain their business. And then they’re going to move on. So when you have that type of large land loss, it can create an incredibly difficult situation in trying to exercise authority over it and have access to a lot of the land.

Some of the different things that we try to do to help support that is we’re working with a few tribes and there was an act that was passed in 1993, the American Indian Agriculture Resource Management Act. Under that act, tribal governments can develop agriculture resource management plans which look at all their different lands, all the different natural resources that are available and evaluate production, conservation, protection, and other considerations. And then develop out what they want to be able to do over a 10-year or plus period. Then they work with the department of the Interior, who is the trustee of that scenario, to get approval for the plans. Then the tribe can run and manage land underneath that clan on its own after that status. It is a very strong way of being able to support tribal government sovereignty. It really acknowledges the fact that tribal governments must be the ones that are making the decisions and terminations of their land.

In Native American culture, I’m aware that there has been a very special relationship between people and their land, care for the land and nurturing of the land, things like that. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

Absolutely, in many Native American cultures, and for many native people, the land and the resources that are surrounding it are sacred. There is a very special tie to it. One of the things that you really see with this, and particularly when we’re looking at supporting different changes in the Farm Bill, are different ways federal policy supports tribal government sovereignty. That understanding and that interest and just really that basis is so incredibly important because tribal governments aren’t going anywhere. They’ve been here since before pre contact, they’ll be here regardless of anything that happens in the future. So what you see is that sometimes where tribal governments are located in very rural areas, sometimes they’re the only government that exists and that government’s not going away. That town is not going to fall. It’s not going to become a ghost town because that’s where the tribe is, that’s their land. So being able to help support tribal governments, tribal governments also serve all people within their service area as well too. With that understanding, you can really do a lot to help revitalize a lot of rural areas in many different parts of Indian country because they’ll be the ones that will be there on the land.

Colby, how does the Farm Bill figure in here? How is it relevant and what can be done in that context?

The Farm Bill is critically important. What’s pretty interesting is when you look at the very first Farm Bill, which I think was in 1933, and it came out around the Dust Bowl era, and it had this strong conservation focus. It also had a focus on homesteading, because that was occurring right around that time. We had some of the very first homestead acts, you know, which was started around the allotment period. And you had more westward moment and trying to be able to support people who had moved and gone west for it, but there was nothing included within that very first Farm Bill that supported tribal agriculture. And so what makes it really difficult is that, you know, agriculture has gone on, and it’s had this incredible support from USDA with the USDA starting in 1862. And that’s a very interesting point in time because when USDA came about it, it also established the land grant system where you have a lot of universities that are setting up on places where tribal land was located, supporting food and agriculture, supporting the homesteaders that are going through. And then the recognition about 60 years later, or 70 years later that there needed to be federal foreign policy to protect the land. And then the land that was setting up this land grant and educational system hadn’t ever addressed some of the issues and concerns with tribal agriculture or supported tribal agriculture. So up until about 1990, there were very very few and maybe none mentions of tribes in Farmville authorities.

Thanks to the work of folks at the Intertribal Agriculture Council, you see in the early 90s some additional mentions of tribes and tribal governments focused on conservation. So you basically cut from almost 150 years of the land grant system, and about 70 years of a Farm Bill and tribal governments and tribal producers start to be able to have that type of inclusion within the program.

But why it’s so important at the federal level is not only to address that large gap of over 150 years of not having particular focus supporting tribal governments and native producers and agriculture. There’s really also the importance of the federal government relationship with tribes as tribal governments, as sovereigns that have a direct relationship with the federal government. So everything the federal government does policy wise, and land wise regardless of the agency has a substantial impact. So being able to address and make changes in the federal Farm Bill is incredibly important just because anytime there’s a change in federal policy, particularly ones that focus on land, land and production and conservation, and looking at some of the rule authorities and as the farm bill I think is probably the second largest spending bill, non defense spending bill that congress passes. And one of the only truly rule focused bill. all of those factors make it a piece of legislation, which is going to have a substantial amount of ability to be able to really help support tribal governments.

Colby, what are some of the things that people can do who may want to help the tribes?

The work and the effort has to be tribally driven. If you have tribal governments in your area or community or working with them within your school as well, I think is really being able to reach out and kind of asking the question of how can I help or what are some of the different things that I can do to be able to help support what you’re looking to be able to do and so I think that’s probably one of the best, one of the best things that folks can be able to do. Sometimes you see some of the history, food and agriculture that there’s always been this top down approach of trying to be able to impose European centric ideas, and new westernized government ideas on top of tribes for that for food and agriculture production, but being able to change that around and going to a tribe, and working with tribal businesses being able to say, what are you looking to do and how can I help? What are some of the things that I can do to be able to do that? And coming from that perspective.

And if there was one thing you’d like people to take away from this conversation, what would it be?

I think it would be that there is a strong recognition of tribal governments as governments–as really the first sovereigns in this country. But also look at tribal governments as partners and develop our strong food systems, and help support rural parts of this country. You know, there’s a lot of opportunities to be able to work together and to build things out. And I think approaching it from a true strong tribal centric perspective of being able to work directly with tribes and help support their efforts in this are very important. So I think that would be probably the one thing.

Colby Duren is the Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas – Office of Economic Development (IFAI). He previously served as Policy Director and Staff Attorney for IFAI since 2017. Colby has over 11 years of experience in federal Indian law and policy, with a specific focus on food, agriculture, nutrition, natural resources, and economic development, which includes work on three Farm Bills.


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