Food Justice: Native People Taking Action to Restore Ancestral Practices and Ways of Life

For thousands of years, before the countries of Canada, United States, Mexico, and South America ever existed, millions of indigenous people inhabited and developed complex societies and systems on this continent. Native people lived in harmony with their environment, which sustained them spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. For so many Native nations, food was embedded in all aspects of life – ceremony, family, community, medicine, language and well-being.

Today in the United States there are 567 Native American nations and 334 reservations located in 35 states, each with their own language, customs, ancestry, traditions and foods. As a trusted partner and resource to Indian country, Partnership with Native Americans (PWNA) is investing in Native communities’ initiatives to increase access to healthier foods, build community gardens and develop the skills to prepare nutritious meals. Through these partnerships, PWNA has learned about the growing food justice movement in reservation communities it serves in the Southwest and Northern Plains.

What is food justice? According to one definition, “’Food Justice’ is communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food … fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate, and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals.”

About a year ago, PWNA supported a reservation-based project focused on building an Ancestral Garden. The Ancestral Garden project was developed to engage Native youth and build on tribal community knowledge of ancestral foods, the impact of these foods at a holistic level (spiritual, mental, physical and emotional), and the connection of the land to the people and the people to the land – a clear example of Native food justice.

Teaching youth from a tribal perspective – including stories, the knowledge of food, the role of food in the community and its impact on individuals – and sharing the stories and the names of the foods in the Native language is at the heart of the Ancestral Garden project. With continued support from PWNA, preparations are underway to enter into a second phase of the project that will reach even more youth.

Recently, PWNA sponsored a healthy food session with a Native chef who teaches Native cuisine along with the food justice paradigm. The session opened with a lecture on the history of Native foods and the importance of this history and its impact on the well-being of individuals and communities. The Native participants at the training, guided by the chef, spent most of the time preparing and tasting healthy, local Native foods, and it was unanimous: Native foods are healthy and delicious!!!

This Native cuisine session was held at the tribal communities’ diabetes prevention program, fitting for such an event since Native American people have the highest diabetes rates of any ethnic group in the world. The Native chef included in her lecture how this life-endangering issue (diabetes) transpired – a result of a people being stripped of their way of life, forced onto reservations and given commodities such as lard, sugar, flour and other processed foods. A tidbit shared by the Native chef is that fry bread is not an ancestral or traditional food – it is considered a survival and oppression food. When the people were put on reservations and not allowed to practice their ways of life, including hunting, gathering and growing food, the processed food given was all that was available – eat it or die. Thus, fry bread was born out of need.

Native food justice is about embracing food as holistic, as medicine – restorative and life-changing – and more than the physical experience of shopping, dicing and eating. Food justice is good for all.

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Help Mitigate the Challenges Native American Students Face

Attaining a post-secondary education is a rewarding goal for anyone, but holds even more meaning for Native American students. Only 70 percent of Native American high school students earn their diplomas, compared to a national average of 82 percent. Only 13 percent of Native American students earn a college degree, facing a number of challenges that the average student does not encounter.

Many Native students do not even consider college, believing that college is not an option, but rather a dream out of reach. The majority of Native American students considering college today are also often the first in their families to do so. Additionally, contrary to public perception, a college education is not free for Native Americans.

All of these factors are why we created the American Indian Education Fund program, taking action to ensure Native American students can get the support they need to accomplish their goals for post-secondary education, service and self-sufficiency. Specifically, PWNA and AIEF services focus on motivating students to consider college, and helping students pay for college and stay in college until graduation.

More than 200 college students are assisted each year through AIEF scholarships and supplies, as well as emergency funds to offset unexpected expenses – from vehicle repairs to emergency travel home – that can challenge a student’s ability to stay in college once they’ve started. Additionally, AIEF’s challenge grants service encourages partner colleges to raise scholarships specifically for Native students, motivating them with matching grants up to $20,000. The AIEF program increases both college access and retention for Native American students.

One such scholar that persevered in school is D’Aryn, who was awarded an AIEF scholarship in 2014 as a freshman at Black Hills State University. In her junior year, she was awarded a second AIEF scholarship, easing the financial load needed to complete her biology/pre-pharmacy degree. In recent years, D’Aryn endured significant losses, including two grandmothers and a cousin. Even in her grief, D’Aryn remains steadfast so she can help others with health issues, knowing that she can serve her people as “someone they can confide in.” Soon to be the first member of her immediate family to graduate college, once her degree is obtained, D’Aryn plans to apply for pharmacy school and pursue a career serving her tribal community as a pharmacist.

“Getting scholarships means everything to me and my family,” says D’Aryn. “Being a first-generation college student makes it that much more rewarding when I receive scholarship funding. The AIEF scholarship is different because they don’t just give you money to pay for school; they actually care about how you are doing.”

In addition to her scholarship, D’Aryn receives a giant holiday stocking filled with various necessities for school, signed birthday cards, care packages of snacks, books and toiletries and calls from AIEF staff and volunteers.

Help us keep hopes high for Native American students. Together, we can show them college is a realistic and attainable goal, no matter what obstacles they face, and there are people who care and want to help. Whether you donate to the AIEF scholarship fund or secure gift-in-kind donations to provide necessities like books and supplies for students, you are making an impact and helping to nudge that 13 percent a little higher. Learn more and donate today!

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National Nutrition Month and Access to Healthy Food

“Put your best fork forward” now because March is National Nutrition Month (NNM). An education program offered yearly by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, this year’s theme is a reminder that every bite counts, and that small shifts in our diet can make a big difference.

For some people, though, this is easier said than done – not everyone has access to proper nutrition. Many Native Americans, for instance, are plagued by diseases presented through poor diets, most specifically diabetes in all ages and obesity in children. Diabetes rates of the Native population are more than double that of the white population, and many Native families grapple with affording a wide enough variety of food to get the nutrition they need. This reality is widely referred to as food insecurity, affecting 1 in 4 Native families, and is not helped by many of the food commodities provided to tribal members by the U.S. government, under their treaty obligations. Generally high in fats and carbs, and for that point, sugars, these elements only help contribute to the obesity and diabetes in Indian country.

PWNA supports Native American partners who are taking the lead on healthy diets and nutrition education in their tribal communities, working to improve native diets, health and wellness – important aims, especially for those who lack regular access to proper nutrition. One of PWNA’s recent innovations includes the use of a mobile unit for training and nutrition (MUTN), enabling collaboration with Native chefs and local cooks to introduce fresh produce and bring healthier twists on traditional foods to remote reservation communities.

These collaborative and community investment projects include community gardens; healthy cooking classes; training on canning, preservation and a return to traditional diets. PWNA’s mobile unit for training and nutrition is used during fresh produce distributions to demonstrate new ways to use produce and incorporate it into family meals. And all of these activities help support a return to a traditional, indigenous diet, which is free of processed foods.

Role models making healthier food choices today teach our youth to also make better choices and avoid the diseases that affect indigenous peoples everywhere. Of course, while these are positive strides, there still remains the need for more access to fresh produce in many remote communities. Later this month, we will be talking more about the impact of community gardens and food as medicine and food justice.

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Native Art, and Native Artists Making Headlines

From quillwork to beadwork, painting and pottery, art is a cornerstone of Native American life. Even today, traditional work is still prominent in many tribes. Yet even more common are the innovative contemporary forms of the older craft styles, with every tribe showing a flair that’s representative of their region or life experience. The more organic paintings of coastal tribes, for instance, differ greatly from the more geometric drawings and quillwork of Plains tribes. This distinctiveness is part of what makes the artwork so attractive and allows Native artists to represent many things in different ways.

Native art by youth of Tohono O’dham Nation

For many families, their artwork is also their trade and livelihood. Native art vendors participate in events across the U.S., many selling fantastic handmade wares ranging from jewelry to baskets, pottery and decorative potpourri for the home. It’s easy to find Native artists at many large gatherings, be it powwows, art festivals, or even some city events and markets where vendors can set up a booth.

The largest event in the world that features Native artists is the Santa Fe Indian Market. Here you can find everything from paintings to quillwork and beadwork, pottery and baskets, rugs and blankets, and other mediums. In 2015, more than 1,000 craft makers and artists were represented at the market, promoting “contemporary growth and evolution” of Native styles from all tribes. Dallin Maybee, Chief Operating Officer of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), shares, “[The Santa Fe Indian Market] is a place to embrace diversity, creativity, living traditions and a warm sense of family.”

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in New Mexico also offers products created by Native artists, some of them students or alumni of their college. You can explore and purchase authentic Native Arts at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), part of the Smithsonian family in Washington, D.C., and in shops such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Prairie Edge in Rapid City, S.D., and the gift shop at the nearby Crazy Horse memorial museum. Many of their items are Native-made, though some are not, so buyer beware.

On the Beyond Buckskin blog, they provide a list of artists to help you buy Native. We add to this a shout out to some Native artists recently making headlines through their unique offerings, among them, Frank Buffalo Hyde (Nez Perce), Wendy Red Star (Crow), George Longfish (Seneca/Tuscarora), Shonto Begay (Diné), and to indigenous artists like Jared Yazzie (Navajo), Nani Chacon (Navajo/Chicana) and Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw), who are currently being featured in a “Native re-appropriations” exhibit.

At the end of the day, it is always the consumer’s choice about what to buy and where to shop. If you do shop retail, research what you are buying. Look for the artist’s “hallmark” stamp on Native jewelry, or request a written guarantee or certification from the vendor to confirm authenticity of Native art and crafts. The money lost to “Native knockoffs” takes away from hardworking artists who depend on their commendable and unique skill set to earn a living. When you buy Native, you help support Native families, and you help encourage the demand for Native artwork so this craftsmanship isn’t lost to the passing of generations.

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International Mother Language Day and the Importance of Native Language

Today, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) celebrates International Mother Language Day (IMLD), under the theme “Toward Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education.” IMLD is recognized annually on Feb. 21 and strives to foster sustainable development by providing learners access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages.

This year, UNESCO noted, “It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting sustainable futures.”

Additionally, UNESCO cites these advantages to multilingual education:

  • Multilingual education increases access, while promoting equal opportunities for those speaking minority and/or indigenous languages – especially girls and women
  • It emphasizes the quality of teaching and learning, with a focus on understanding and creativity
  • It reinforces cognitive learning, leading to positive outcomes in the learner’s life
  • It encourages genuine communication from the beginning
  • It facilitates participation and action in society and gives access to new knowledge and cultural expressions, harmonizing global and local points of view

At PWNA, we understand the importance of Native languages and the preservation of related history, culture and education, especially related to the Native Americans we serve. The San Felipe Pueblo, for example, is home to 3,300 people, many of whom have retained and speak the Keresan language. Located in the picturesque pueblos of New Mexico, this community both honors and utilizes its mother language.

In addition to many of the tribal communities we serve, we have seen the importance of Native language discussed in the media, and we recommend learning more through these stories:

What do you consider your mother language? How has it helped you learn and grow?

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Show the Philanthropic Love This Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day can conjure up a mix of nostalgic memories and feelings. Whether its exchanging classroom valentines in elementary school, choosing the perfect gift for your significant other, or celebrating friendship with your “Galentines” on a day normally associated with romance, Valentine’s Day is all about showing the love.

This February 14, we encourage you to look at how you can spread the love by giving back. Consider the causes that are close to your heart, or the hearts of those you love. Showing you care by volunteering at a nonprofit you’re passionate about, or donating to a charity whose mission you stand behind is a meaningful way to uniquely celebrate a day that’s otherwise overcrowded with candy and flowers.

There are a number of ways to show love to a greater cause, whether you are passionate about education, animal welfare, emergency relief, nutrition or health, including:

  • Donating to PWNA’s scholarship program, which helps Native American students – statistically, only 13 percent earn college degrees – attend college or other post-secondary schooling.
  • Donating pet food, bowls and leashes to PWNA’s animal welfare program, which assists reservations in caring for stray animals.
  • Participating in PWNA’s Winter Warmth Drive, which helps children, families and Elders on the reservation keep their homes heated throughout the harsh winter on the Northern Plains.

If you’re searching for other ways to give beyond PWNA, consider browsing the CrowdRise website. You may recognize the name from our #GivingTuesday campaigns in recent years. CrowdRise helps us, along with more than 1 million other charitable efforts, crowd source funding from donors who care about their missions.

How will you show the love today?

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The True Impact of the Dawes Act of 1887

“Indian Land for Sale Ad” by Dept. of Interior, 1911

Do you know what the Dawes Act of 1887 is? It wouldn’t surprise me if your answer is “no.” But, it is likely you have heard of the notorious Indian land for sale offer. This sale was to support the Dawes Act, adopted by Congress on Feb. 8, 1887, and drive assimilation of Natives into mainstream society.

When I was growing up, I remember hearing the phrases “we were separated” and “our land was taken,” though I didn’t realize that these were active goals of the Dawes Act at that time. Discussing the full impact of this act could run for volumes, but strictly speaking, the Dawes Act of 1887 provided Native Americans the opportunity to accept an allotment of land that was surveyed from tribal lands, and be granted United States citizenship in the process.

The political examination of the introduction of this act shows another reason as to why it was constructed – specifically to undermine tribal unity. By granting citizenship to those who took the land, the hope was that they would be less communicative and accepting of tribal government — that exposing Natives to the “civilized” white culture would leave them more accepting of it and lead to better U.S. and tribal relations.

In the end, the biggest impact of the Dawes Act was a loss of indigenous cultures, tradition and land across the U.S. It did a number on our tribal communities and tried to pit our ancestors against each other.

Reservation lands became fractionated – broken up and divided among those who took part in the offer – and families became “…separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein … adopt[ing] the habits of civilized life.”

It was by this measure that, after 25 years, those who took the land were given deeds – and this ultimately allowed them to sell the land, leading to the loss of more than 90 million acres that was once treaty land.

With the assimilation of so many, a certain amount of culture and tradition was lost within some tribes – a by-product of the loss of land and separation. Today, there are a number of dead or dying Native languages, and many of the indigenous do not know the intricacies of their particular people because the knowledge of those traditions was idle or forgotten. This might be the most long-lasting effect of the Dawes Act, and one of the more unfortunate.

When speaking of these topics, we must be careful to not place blame where it doesn’t belong. I, personally, try to stay unbiased in these writings, and only use them to inform others, so that, hopefully, in the future, we understand things like the Dawes Act and can foresee the impact. With so many groups divided, today, we should take the time to look at these divides and ensure we are not being detrimental to our causes or others.

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Winter warmth means less hardship for Native American Elders

Harsh winters in the Northern Plains bring bitter cold, severe wind chills and damaging storms that often lead to power outages, water outages or water contamination, and displacement of Elders, families and children. Amplifying this, winter in the Northern Plains can last up to seven months — with the first snow often seen in October, and the last in early May.

As a result of these extremely long winters, the energy assistance funds of Pine Ridge, Rosebud and other Northern Plains reservations tend to be exhausted a month or two before winter is over. This hardship is most deeply felt by the Elders, who are more susceptible to winter risks and expenses.

To help ensure winter warmth for these Elders, our Northern Plains Reservation Aid (NPRA), a program of Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA), supplements their winter funding with winter fuel vouchers. Last year, we were honored to help Hilda, a 99-year-old Native American Elder and grandmother living in the Fort Thompson community on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Hilda received a winter fuel voucher from us, which helped fill the propane tank to heat her home and helped her through a very long winter.

Like Hilda, many other Elders also need winter fuel assistance. You can help us warm up their winters and keep them safe from winter risk by donating to PWNA’s Winter Warmth Drive today. Every gift and social share helps.

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National Freedom Day

U.S. lobbyist Richard R. Wright was 9 years old when President Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment to be passed onto Congress for approval, on Feb. 1, 1865. For this reason, Wright lobbied to use the same date – Feb. 1 – as National Freedom Day; a day to celebrate and promote harmony, happiness, and equal opportunity across the United States. June 30, 1948, President Truman signed Proclamation 2824, marking the first of February each year as National Freedom Day.

More than anything, National Freedom Day is a marker for the abolition of slavery, but that act in itself opened up a new era of possibilities for African Americans, lending to the normalization of not just blacks, but many minority cultures, for a better social status in America. This process took a long time over the course of U.S. history. The introduction of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, even the 19th Amendment in 1920 was influenced by this rush of minority rights.

I like to think of National Freedom Day as a sort of turning point within the majority feelings of our country. Although, throughout the 1950s, many people of color were considered second class citizens, the holiday was a declaration that change was being acknowledged for African Americans, Indigenous peoples and women. After this period, it was more common to see inter-racial couples and women in more job roles, and the “second class citizen” label put on so many minorities faded and began to be replaced by a new label: “human beings.”

That being said, even in today’s age, many ethnic groups still deal with some social stigmas. Although seemingly superfluous, many of them are hurtful and can perpetuate demeaning views toward minorities. In my personal experience, however, that isn’t the case, and while my peers seem to know little about this holiday, most find it agreeable to celebrate harmony among races, and equal opportunity for all, throughout the year.

Something I learned by asking my peers about National Freedom Day is that none of them knew about it, and most of them saw it as insincere in its intent. Despite being unknown and perceived as more token than reality, I personally think establishing the day was a bigger step than some realize. Why? Because, more often than not, even an act of superficial value is enough to jumpstart something greater than the act itself, and I see in my generation the embodiment of individuals coming together, without even considering race or background as a factor of someone’s worth.

At the end of the day, everyone is trying to live their lives in the best way they can, and a lot of the time, hoping to bring happiness to others along the way. National Freedom Day brings a chance for all of us to remember this and to hopefully spread the word or act accordingly.

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Education for Self-Determination and Quality of Life

Today, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s fitting that we are looking at determination, inspiration and progress. In particular, we focus on historical and current trends in American Indian education. Let’s begin by looking back, to something we all learned about in public school.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, giving birth to a new nation known as the United States of America. Soon after, laws were passed guiding the nation’s growth and prosperity. American history acknowledges that, long before these events, Indian Nations existed and prospered on this continent. What the history does not acknowledge is that the citizens of these American Indian nations were educated by their own people, through systems established over thousands of years.

For almost 200 years, the U.S. government has set laws controlling the education of American Indian children. Federal Indian education policies seemed more focused on “civilizing” the American Indian and assimilating them into the U.S. melting pot. “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” was the mantra and approach to educating Indian children. The 1819 Indian Civilization Act passed by Congress authorized education funding for “mission schools” operated by religious groups on reservations. Almost 60 years after that, the federal government expanded the Indian education system by establishing government-operated boarding schools. The U.S. was not alone in this; Canada also set up a similar system for the First Nations people, with similar results.

The U.S. and Canadian systems set up to educate American Indians have failed the children and the tribes. One needs to look back just a couple of decades to see the harsh realities and poor state of Indian education. For those who dare to look back even further, prepare yourself to learn about the atrocities committed against Indian children.

Now fast forwarding, let’s look at what is going on today, and we begin to see that the story is really about determination, inspiration and progress. Determination? Yes, American Indian governments and its people have always worked on reclaiming their right to educate their young and to work with systems to improve the quality of Indian education. Inspiration? Yes. In the face of adversity and miraculously defying extermination, American Indian communities are finding solutions to fix the failing Indian education system. Progress? Yes. American Indians value education and are taking control of the education process, designing their own systems that lead to success.

Did you know that up to 70 percent of Native American students drop out of high school (varies by community) and only 13 percent of Native students earn college degrees? It is true and American Indian governments and organizations are actively working to turn this around. I am proud to say the American Indian Education Fund, a program of Partnership With Native Americans, is one partner in this effort to enhance opportunities for K-12 and post-secondary students.

Six federally recognized tribes in October 2014 were awarded $1.2 million in Sovereignty in Indian Education (SIE) enhancement funds, “to promote tribal control and operation of BIE-funded schools on their reservations.” The SIE enhancement funds support the findings and recommendations of the American Indian Education Study Group and aim at improving federal education systems and resources in Indian Country. The six tribes are:

  1. Gila River Indian Community, Sacaton, Ariz.
  2. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Fort Yates, N.D.
  3. Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Belcourt, N.D.
  4. Tohono O’Odham Nation, Sells, Ariz.
  5. Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Ariz.
  6. Oglala Sioux Tribe, Pine Ridge, S.D.

The Navajo Nation is a prime example of an American Indian government working to improve the quality of education. The first BIE-funded boarding school established on the Navajo Nation in 1965 – Rough Rock Demonstration School  (now Rough Rock Community School) – later became “the first Indian-controlled school in modern times.” Soon after, in 1968, citing the high college dropout rate for Native students, the Navajo tribal council passed a resolution founding the first tribal college – Navajo Community College (renamed Diné College in 1977). Finally, in 1978, Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Assistance Act.

The Navajo Nation recently took another step, beginning to transfer operation of more than 30 schools from U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) control, to management by the Navajo Nation’s Department of Education. The Navajo Nation made this request under public law 93-628, also known as the Self-Determination Contract Act, in a Sept. 30, 2016, letter to Sally Jewell, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary.

More and more, what American Indian children are taught and how they are taught is moving under the control of tribal governments across the United States. The motivation is for tribes to be able to have an impact on the quality of education and the lives of their children. Education is a powerful tool for building prosperous communities and well-being, and finally, after two centuries, education has come full circle, back to the people to whom it belongs and who can deliver the greatest impact for tribal citizens.

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