Food, Politics and Sustainability: An Introduction to the Native American Food Sovereignty Movement

Throughout the United States a movement for food sovereignty has emerged among a number of Tribal Nations and communities. ‘Food sovereignty’ was first coined by members of La Via Campesina in 1996, who defined it as “the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives”1. However, food sovereignty has different meanings and values from an indigenous perspective, which include spiritual and cultural aspects. This is evident in the film by the Indigenous Environmental Network Regaining Food Sovereignty: Neyaab Nimamoomin Mewinzha Gaa-inajigeyang, a definite must-see! By reclaiming and revitalizing the knowledge and practices surrounding traditional foods these communities are working toward a new model for well-being, sustainable livelihoods and food security. The discourse surrounding this movement is inherently tied to a history of genocide and the desire to “bring back power to our people” 2. The following article will be exploring the Native American food sovereignty movement, and in particular the inherent link between food and self-determination, focusing on how issues surrounding power and indigenous rights are intertwined with the discourse of sustainable livelihoods. This article consequently aims to demonstrate the inextricable bond between having control over where food comes from, the revitalization of traditional harvesting practices, and the struggle against a status-quo which has resulted from a history of colonialism and genocide.

At its core, Native American food sovereignty understands food as sacred and critical to community well-being 3. Although the framework for food sovereignty differs between every community and is continually evolving, “at its core is a set of goals comprised of protecting community, livelihoods and social and environmental sustainability in the production, consumption and distribution of nutritious and culturally appropriate food” 4. As a case study, it provides an interesting perspective on how politics and power can intersect with goals of sustainability. During the World Conference of Indigenous Women, which took place in Peru in 2013, Indigenous leader Andrea Carmen pointed out that food sovereignty is a notion that indigenous peoples have developed as “a key component of their right to control how their lands and territories are used”5. She went on to cite Article 1 of International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as stating, “In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence”6. However, indigenous land tenure remains a global issue and governments across the world continue to appropriate land and resources without indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent 7. Furthermore, climate change threatens the environments in which many indigenous peoples live, causing food insecurity and further dependence on a globalized food economy.

As sovereignty has to do with self-determination, its connection with food in this context has deeper implications than simply the desire to control the food system. Allison Dussias (2009) explores the avenues which tribes in the United States have taken to protect their right to subsistence resources, and in so doing outlines the inherent link between subsistence and sovereignty. She describes this link in terms of bridges: bridges between Tribal members, bridges between generations, bridges across time, and bridges between economic life and cultural and spiritual life. Firstly, subsistence activities are often communal; people hunt and gather together. Consequently these activities represent an important glue which hold a community together, and enforces ties between members 8. The revitalization of communal harvesting practices takes on a political note when Dussias explains that such practices “flies in the face of past efforts to destroy tribal ties and replace them with undiluted individualism”, as was the goal of the government through assimilationist policies which promoted ownership of property and nuclear families 8. Furthermore, subsistence activities constitute bridges between generations as knowledge is passed from elders to younger members of the community. This is a system which was disrupted by government policies which sent Native American children to boarding schools where they were converted to Christianity, discouraged to speak their own language, and where many children faced abuse and neglect. Consequently, the preservation of “subsistence activities helps to counter the continuing effects of past government education programs and their denigration of traditional knowledge” 8. Subsistence activities also represent bridges across time as not only do they represent an effort to preserve the knowledge and practices that tribes have held since time immemorial, but they also intend to use it in a way which ensures its availability to future generations. This notion of sustainable consumption is embodied in the Haudenosaunee ‘Seven Generations’ principle, which “recognizes the responsibility of today’s people toward those of the future” and is referred to in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 8. Lastly, traditional subsistence activities represent bridges between economic life and cultural and spiritual life in that they sustain communities physically, but they are also vital in protecting a way of life which is fundamental to the very identity of indigenous communities 8.

The right to control access to subsistence resources is dependent on land rights, and consequently cannot be separated from discussions surrounding tribal sovereignty. Coffey and Tsosie (2001) write about the ways in which the U.S. government has treated the sovereignty of Indian nations:

Although the Court has always acknowledged the sovereign nature of Indian nations, the Court’s reading of tribal political sovereignty has changed over the years to reflect  its belief that the incorporation of Indian nations into the United States limits their inherent sovereignty 9.

Although the complex history and current situation of land rights and treaties cannot be covered within this short article, it is clear that there exists a disagreement on the scope of tribal political sovereignty. However, there is a much greater battle being waged, namely the battle to “protect and defend tribal cultures from the multitude of forces that threaten the cultural survival of Indian nations” 9. The authors describe this as cultural sovereignty, which includes processes of repatriation and the revitalization of traditional practices and values 9. The link between Native American food sovereignty and cultural and political sovereignty is clear.

This may lead to the question: how is all of this related to sustainability? As previously demonstrated, control over subsistence activities has a direct correlation with sustaining indigenous ways of life and values, which could arguably be considered to be a sustainable development initiative. However, this article has purposefully not attempted to assess or judge the sustainability of certain food sovereignty practices, as this would be inappropriate in this context. Sustainability means different things to different people, but ultimately it is generally understood as an attempt to bridge human activities and the environment. However, the separation between these two is arguably a Western creation, stemming from a long-standing separation between culture and nature which became evident during the Industrial Revolution and the dissemination of European science 10. Ultimately, one could argue that indigenous perspectives on sustainability are inherently linked with traditional knowledge, values and practices, which have always highlighted the inseparability of the human and natural world. This is illustrated by Hall (2008) who investigated indigenous understandings of the term “sustainability”:

In Western society, words tend to diminish its meaning and the English language in my opinion tends to segment out a part of a whole. Sustainability taken from that perspective is too small a term from what I would consider to be an indigenous peoples perspective […] We don’t have such a term, because we live it. 11

Consequently, the employment of the term ‘sustainability’ can be seen as another attempt to compartmentalize a notion that is inseparable to life itself. From this perspective, it seems evident that a re-framing of our understanding of sustainability, and what it means to live in a way which ensures the prosperity of future generations of all species, is necessary in order to include other worldviews. It is also evident that a new vocabulary may be required to encompass the wide range of practices which are inseparable from such a way of life.

To conclude, this essay has demonstrated that food, land, rights and sovereignty cannot be separated from each other. This discussion demonstrates the inevitable discourse of power which surrounds ‘sustainability’ (for lack of a better word) in Native America, and the inherent link between sovereignty and control over subsistence activities. It has also raised questions about the very definition of the term ‘sustainability’, due to its connection with a worldview that has historically separated humans from the environment in the most artificial way, but this also presents a wider lesson for sustainable development initiatives in other parts of the world. Ultimately, the following questions are raised: Is ‘sustainability’ an appropriate term in such contexts? What does it exclude and include? And how can cooperation between indigenous and western knowledge be achieved in an equitable way to provide a more holistic perspective?



  1. Rosset, P., 2003. Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements. Backgrounder, 9(4).
  2. Regaining Food Sovereignty: Neyaab Nimamoomin Mewinzha Gaa-inajigeyang. 2013. [Film] United States of America: Indigenous Environmental Network.
  3. Vesely, R., 2014. Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin: Food Sovereignty, Safe Water, and Tribal Law. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 6 April 2014].
  4. Whittman, A. & Desmarais, H., 2013. Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, Conference Paper #3, New Haven: Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University.
  5. Cherofsky, J., 2013. Maintaining the Ways of Our Ancestors: Indigenous Women Address Food Sovereignty. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 37(4), pp. 16-18.
  6. United Nations , 1976. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, s.l.: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  7. Amnesty International, 2013. Indigenous Peoples have right to make decisions about development of their lands. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 9April 2014].
  8. Dussias, A., 2009. Spirit Food and Sovereignty: Pathways for Protecting Indigenous Peoples’ Subsistence Rights. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 6 April 2014].
  9. Coffey, W. & Tsosie, R., 2001. Rethinking the Tribal Sovereignty Doctrine: Cultural Sovereignty and the Collective Future of Indian Nations. Stanford Law & Policy Review, 12(2), pp. 186-222.
  10. Ingold, T., 2000. The Perception of the Environment. New York: Routledge.
  11. Hall, D., 2008. Sustainability from the Perspectives of Indigenous Leaders in the Bioregion Defined by the Pacific Salmon Runs of North America. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 6 April 2014].






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