Just Transition, Alaska Native Food Sovereignty: Resiliency in Action
During January 2020’s first-ever Alaska Just Transition Summit, participants explored what “food sovereignty” meant to them and shared ways in which they are helping to build a more just Alaskan […]
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“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”
-Declaration of Nyéléni,
the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

During January 2020’s first-ever Alaska Just Transition Summit, participants explored what “food sovereignty” meant to them and shared ways in which they are helping to build a more just Alaskan food system for all. This post explores the concept of self-determination within food systems, and how we got to where we are today.

In his book What are People For,  agroecologist and farmer Wendell Berry states that “Eating is an agricultural act,” arguing against the industrialization of a food system that creates products over real food and human-environment connections, and that “both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.” Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate,  Vandana Shiva expands this concept further, exemplifying the intersectionality of food and just about every aspect of our lives:  “Eating is an ecological act. Eating is an ethical act. Eating is a political act. Eating is an agricultural act.” Food literally intersects every other aspect of human life, for better or for worse.

Food systems are shaped by policy and preferences dictated predominantly by those who hold power and wealth. Political agendas and actions centuries old have lasting impacts on marginalized cultures and their homelands.  Alaskan indigenous foodways have come close to decimation at the hands of colonialism, capitalism, and climate change.  Emerging movements supporting greater food sovereignty are challenging these oppressive systems, restoring care for the earth, and revisioning and redefining local indigenous food systems.

“When you talk about food, you’re talking about agriculture – you’re also talking about security.  Whether it’s food security of national security.  You’re also talking about poverty. You’re also talking about health.  You’re also talking about racism and power.  That’s the intersection of food and agriculture.”— Pakou Hang (Hmong American Farmers Association)

In describing the exploitive roots of how American food production came about during these times, chef and Third Plate author Dan Barber writes, “Colonial agriculture took root in the philosophy of extraction. Conquer and tame nature rather than work in concert with nature.” By examining the deep and widespread multi-generational effects of colonialism, we unravel layers of injustice that have displaced people and their cultures, while forever altering ecosystems. The colonization of Alaska installed oppressive systems and policy that forced Alaska Natives to live and subsist in non-traditional ways, disconnecting communities from sacred lands, practices, and lifeways.

Manifest Destiny, Alaska: Colonization of Native Lands

The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word “Aleyska,” meaning “great land” (State of Alaska – a, n.d.).  For over 10,000 years, Alaska Natives lived in symbiosis with this great land, subsisting on wild game, fish and other marine resources, plants, and small cultivation patches. With the arrival of Russian and European explorers and settlers in the 1700s, indigenous lifeways were permanently altered.  Decades of land disputes, indigenous massacres and exploitation, and increasing natural resource extraction followed. In 1867 the U.S. government “purchased” the state for $7.2 million dollars from Russia and institutional campaigns to “civilize” Alaskan Natives began. 

“American Progress,” Artwork by John Gast, 1872

The genocide and forced relocation that ensued set indigenous people up for a life of poverty, disease, and few economic opportunities, with “significant health, cultural, and spiritual impacts” without the means to fully practice “cultural and tribal identity, pride, self-respect, and above all, basic human dignity.” In addition to being exposed to new diseases and alcohol (leaving thousands orphaned), children were also forced into abusive boarding schools, often thousands of miles from home, family, and culture, with the sole purpose of forced assimilation and the annihilation of native culture.

The effects of forced assimilation are still felt and lived today, across generations.  Today, the health of many native groups is still affected.  “The metabolic disorders have caused our cultural wisdom keepers to die in the early stages of life.  Now the youth are affected by the dominant society’s corporate influences promoting unhealthy foods and lifestyles” says Ben Yahola, co-director of the Mvkoke Food Sovereignty Initiatives & Earthkeepers Voices for Native America.

Policies Supporting Dominant Culture

“Everything in US history is about the land- who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (“real estate”) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market” states Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Ultimately, those in control of lands, have control of the people who reside in them.  In the early 1900s, petroleum resources were discovered, and settlers began arriving in droves. William Egan, Alaska’s first governor, proclaimed in 1957 that the ongoing evidence of petroleum resources being found in the state was “the economic justification for statehood for Alaska,” (American Oil & Gas Historical Society, n.d.). Official statehood was granted in 1959, establishing Alaska’s lifelong reliance on natural resources. 

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created regional corporations, based on traditional lands and cultural structures.  Under the terms of the “agreement,” all Alaska Natives gave up claims to most of their ancestral lands, in exchange for 44 million acres of land and $962 million. The act called for corporate tribal ownership and management of the land, in hopes that tribal corporations, with control of their own natural resources, could provide a secure economic future for members, affectively recreating capitalistic corporate power structures within indigenous communities. In addition, communal hunting, gathering, and fishing lands were privatized, or put under state and federal management, adding layers of bureaucracy and permitting in accessing traditional subsistence areas. By implementing new policies around natural resource management and development, traditional perspectives of symbiotic relationships between the natural world and humans were invalidated for more “civilized” colonial values.

Disrupted Modern Indigenous Food Systems

Alaska Native community health is “directly tied to the health of our land & water… our survival and well-being depend on how BOTH are cared for and protected” (Native Movement).  Through colonization, many indigenous people’s relationships severed, communities were disrupted and displaced, and traditional knowledge lost.  Today the drive for economic and energy dominance continues to threaten indigenous foodways.  In Alaska and throughout the rest of the US, the threat of multinational mining companies, pipelines, and mineral exploration loom large, directly affecting the ability of communities to subsist as they have for thousands of years.

The long-fought proposed Pebble Mine in an area rich with minerals, “would threaten the Bristol Bay fishery and the world-class salmon run which has served as the heart of our subsistence lifestyle, supporting our people for generations. BBNC’s firm opposition to Pebble is consistent with the values of cultural and economic sustainability to which we hold ourselves,” explains Bristol Bay Native Corporation Chairman Joe Chythlook.  Further north, the prospect of drilling in the sacred Gwich’in lands of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an assault on their way of living, and right to culturally appropriate foodways.

“If there’s oil and gas drilling in the core calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou, that’s going to absolutely destroy our way of life forever,” says Lorraine Netro, a Gwich’in resident.  “Our voice is going to be at the forefront of this issue for all time. We will not compromise. We will not sacrifice the lifestyle and the way of life for our grandchildren and all future generations.” 

Artwork by Sarah Whalen-Lun, 2018

Climate change, human caused by extreme dependence on and use of fossil fuels, is another major threat to Arctic native groups’ lifeways.  The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, with human activities identified as the primary accelerator of climate change. If the pattern continues, the Arctic Ocean will be nearly ice-free by 2040. Melting permafrost unleashes locked up carbon, warming contributes to habitat loss and changes for plants and animals (traditional foods), and rising sea levels have led to displacement of towns and villages. 

The majority of municipalities in Alaska or 86% are not connected by the road system, and 79% are considered rural, with less than 1,500 residents. This means that modern infrastructure is inefficient and that the transportation of goods and products are costly and limited. Economic opportunities in remote villages are scant at best, causing many Alaska Natives to live below the poverty line. While Food insecurity plagues the entire state, Alaska Natives are suffering the most. Between 2000 – 2010, over 30% of Alaska Natives were consistently food insecure and were twice as likely to be food insecure when compared to white populations. But yet, native communities persist, holding on to traditions and fighting for survival of land, people, and culture.

Resilience, Reconnecting, & Revisioning

            In identifying and challenging oppressive policy and dogma, we can begin to rebuild a more just and equitable food system. The Seeds of Native Health organization explains that “extreme poverty and the loss of traditional foods have caused many Native Americans to suffer from inadequate diets and have led to widespread, chronic health problems” like diabetes and obesity. Indigenous lead food sovereignty movements around Alaska and neighboring Canada have been making tremendous strides at placing native needs and preferences at the forefront of action to preserve and honor tradition, while looking to new technology or ways of being that meet these needs (Native Movement, 2019).  Many of these movements utilize agriculture, traditional foods, and reconnection to landscapes to address root causes and build healthier futures.

Alaska Native Food Sovereignty Movements

“Land-based agricultural resources are vital to the economic and social welfare of many Native American and Alaskan Tribes. The harmonies of man, soil, water, air, vegetation and wildlife that collectively make-up the American Indian agriculture community, influence our emotional and spiritual well-being”, says the Intertribal Agricultural Council. Programs run by native communities like Tyonek Grown, Alaska Village Initiatives, and Kodiak Archipelago Leadership Institute are aimed at increasing food security through agricultural education and development, a community-identified need. Many movements have adopted principles like Climate Justice Alliances’ “ Six Food Sovereignty Principles” to help guide projects:

  1. Focus on Food for People
  2. Makes Decisions Locally
  3. Value Food Providers
  4. Build Knowledge and Skill
  5. Localize Food Systems
  6. Work with Nature

            “When plans are made locally, people are better able to identify and speak to the importance of the relationships with the landscapes and create plans that maintain those relationships. And that’s a very important component of resiliency,” says Erica Lujan with the Alaska Native Health Consortium.  As white/colonial allies to indigenous groups seeking autonomy, it is vital to acknowledge how our own perceptions, settler cultures, and experiences temper perspectives that are often very different from indigenous worldviews.  Furthermore, it’s vital to take a holistic viewpoint, incorporating non-traditional aspects of culture when approaching community health initiatives.

            Native American writer and botanist Gary Nabhan states that “the people remaining on Earth must make a choice either to continue on the path that leads to destruction of life as we know it, or chose a different future – one of renewal… turn back along the road from which they have come and begin to pick up the pieces that have been scattered… put the world together again.”  Alaska Natives did not choose the atrocities of colonialism and forced assimilation.  Though, the circumstances perpetuated by these government and private sector policies, judicial action, and systemic racism have directly shaped their access to viable economic opportunity, tribal culture, and to traditional food resources.

           Despite the continual assault on their lifeways, through mechanisms like climate change and resource development, many indigenous movements have risen to elevate food sovereignty through community defined ways and means.  The resilience of Alaskan Native food sovereignty movements should be supported by non-native allies, not subverted.  Keeping community need and self-termination at the heart these efforts will build resilient and meaningful programs, with greater impacts and longevity.  Native American author and artist Ben Yahola states that “With allies we are now reconnecting with the land both experientially and ideologically.  The indigenous of the Americans are improving the health and food/cultural sovereignty of their communities” affirming that these movements are growing roots and making positive, culturally appropriate change.