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Resource: A First Nations Perspective on Food – A’dae Romero-Briones

A’dae Romero-Briones provides a First Nation’s perspective on food, and was part of a larger discussion on Food & Faith. This talk was part of a Food & Faith Convening event held in November 2018 at Duke University. The event was developed through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and the Rural Church Program Area of The Duke Endowment, the Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC).  Convening discussions identified several themes that drive the work of faith communities: moving from charity to justice, food sovereignty, and equitable food-oriented development; moving from charity to justice for the land & environment; the need for bridging and relationship building between practitioners, funders, and the academy; and the need for bridging between faith communities and policy. Additionally, several academic themes for future research were identified focused on cross-faith comparative analysis and the broad impact of faith community-based food systems work.

About A’dae Romero-Briones

A’dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa) works as Director of Programs-Native food and agricultural Initiative for First Nations Development Institute. She is formerly the Director of Community Development for Pulama Lana’i. She is also the co-founder and former Executive Director of a non-profit in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. Romero-Briones worked for the University of Arkansas’ Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative while a student there. She wrote extensively about Food Safety, the Produce Safety rule and tribes, and the protection of tribal traditional foods. A U.S. Fulbright Scholar, Romero-Briones received her Bachelor of Arts in public policy from Princeton University, a Law Doctorate from Arizona State University, and LLM in food and agricultural law from the University of Arkansas. Her thesis was on the Food Safety Modernization Act as it applied to the Federal Tribal relationship. She was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in Agriculture and sits on the National Organic Standards Board and the Sustainable Ag and Food Systems Funders Policy Committee.


So imagine walking into this room with all the people you see today but then nobody says a word; and you’re still tasked with improving our food environment for everybody in the room. Then imagine that someone walks up to you and offers you their hand. Do you take that hand? Now imagine the same room as our global food environment, and that the person offering you that hand is an indigenous person who has lived in this space for hundreds and thousands of years. Do you take that hand? And I ask you this because this is often what it feels like to be an indigenous person. Imagine the room filled with not only humans but animals, and plants, and water, and land, and we are tasked, as a people, to improve that food environment.

I work for First Nations Development Institute and we work with community-based food projects in indigenous communities across the country, Alaska and Hawaii. My name is A’dae Romero Briones, as it was said before. I come from the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and the Cochiti Pueblo of New Mexico. Originally I was going to tell you a little bit about the food traditions of the Kiowa Tribe who are a Buffalo people, but we have my brother here, Mr. Reverend Robert Two Bulls, who probably can explain Buffalo people better than I can. So I will leave that part up to him and I will focus more on Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico because I am from a Pueblo community, which is a small Indian community located in Northern New Mexico.

There are about a thousand Cochiti people in this world and 800 of them live in our small village along the Rio Grande. Cochiti people have been farmers since time immemorial. In 1979, in my village, despite the protests from my community, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam that flooded 50% of our agricultural homelands. Within five years, because of faulty construction, that same dam flooded the remaining 50%. So, within 10 years, my community went from being farmers for thousands of years to having literally no land to farm. I grew up in this time. My grandfather was one of the tribal councilmen. I remember going to meetings with him that lasted hours into the night. I remember falling asleep on his lap, but I most remember his hands. His hands were rough and they were soft, and they had these veins on the back of his hands that popped up like rivers. He used to tell me that those were the maps of our homelands and that the only way that you could get those hands was to put your hands in the water and the dirt and the earth will mold those maps on the back of your hands.

For my community, it was a very hard time. It was a time of reflection and critical questioning. The question we were asking is who would we be as people if we could not farm? Similar to the questions that we see the global food community asking today. The answers for my community were that we could not exist without access to our homelands and the foods that made us Cochiti people. Despite the threats and the intimidation, my community took the United States to court. Took on the largest military branch to court. We won.

Eventually the US Government decided to offer my community compensation for the agricultural lands lost, but my community said, “No, we don’t want money, we want the restorations of our agricultural homelands.” In 2001, my community finally had a place where we could farm again. So we started off on the long journey of trying to reconnect our older generations of farmers, who hadn’t farmed for 30 years, to our younger generation of Cochiti people, who are now avid workers in a cash economy, in towns 50 to 60 miles away. And really that’s how I entered into this food space.

I eventually married a man who was Pomo Coast Miwok and Native Hawaiian from California, and we moved to his homelands in Lodi, California. California is one of the most progressive and environmentally-conscious states in the Union. I know I have my California sister here, but it has one of the harshest and most brutal histories, indigenous histories in this country. So I live in the California Delta which is home to the Yokuts, the Miwoks, the Tummukans, but these are names that are not federally or state recognized. California says there are no tribes within the California food basket, which is the central valley of California, or along the coast that are quintessentially California.

I’m going to tell you the story about the salmon because people in California are from the Salmon Nation. We have the Buffalo Nation. I come from the Corn Nation. We have the Salmon Nation people. The story of the salmon is a pretty important one because we learn from the salmon. And I’m telling you this story because my husband and I just took our children out to go fishing on the river of the Sacramento. We told our children the story of the salmon, and the salmon is the chief of the fish. They marry both the ocean and the land, and they basically gather at the mouth of the bay. Back in the day, they say they used to gather in the millions, that there would be so many salmon that you could hear the songs ring and echo throughout the bay. It was like a rattling sound, and they called it the Song of the Salmon, The salmon gathered, and they go up the current, and they push past the sea lines, and they push past the osprey, and they push past the eagles, they push past the fishermen until they make it to the rivers, to the waterfalls. In those waterfalls, they jump and they fall, they jump and they fall, and they jump and they fall, until finally they make it over the waterfalls. And then finally they’re pushing up against the current, and finally they make it to the base of the mountain where they pump in these eggs into the land. And then they die, and then their bodies float down that river, and eventually they feed all the creatures that they’ve once passed. And eventually they become part of the land and they feed the plants that eventually feed the people. And California is literally built upon thousands and thousands of years of the Salmon Nation.

When we think about this story, and we tell my kids this story, we take them out and we go fishing, and those fish that my children catch, eventually we eat. And then our existence is then connected with the existence of the salmon. That salmon journey then becomes the journey of my children – but that’s not the end, because those salmon eggs will eventually hatch and those small baby salmon will float with the current back to the ocean until it’s their time to return to their place of creation. And in that story we learned that the older generation of salmon creates the memory that these younger generation of salmon will eventually have to call upon. So we learned from the salmon, and when my daughter goes to that river and she watches the salmon, she’s learning the language without words. She’s learning when the salmon don’t return in their regular numbers. She is learning when fewer bodies float down that river. She is learning when the salmon are smaller, and it’s a conversation and a language that has lasted for generations. And it’s a language that she will eventually have to teach to her children so that regardless of whether state or federal, federal law allows her to do that. She is responsible for learning that language. And I am responsible for teaching her that language. We do this, not because we have to just nourish our bodies, but we do this because eventually we hope that the salmon will again gather in the numbers that we can all hear that salmon crossed the bay again. Thank you.

Related Podcasts

Podcast - Adae Romero Briones

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