Native American Heritage Month: Land Sovereignty, Food Decolonization, and Paths Forward

November 2023

November is National Native American Heritage Month (also called American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month), and it’s a time to celebrate the rich cultures, traditions, and histories of Indigenous Americans. It’s also an opportunity to learn and educate others about the challenges Native communities face today, including issues related to land sovereignty and food decolonization. 

Here’s what you should know about the history of the month, what land sovereignty and food decolonization are and how they’re related, and ways American society can address these challenges.

The History of National Native American Heritage Month

National Native American Heritage Month originated in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the week of November 23-30 as “American Indian Week.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush expanded this to a month-long celebration, designating November as National Native American Heritage Month. 

The month aims to celebrate the cultures, accomplishments, and contributions of Native American and Alaska Native communities. Over the course of November, communities and nonprofits will host various events, educational programs, and activities to promote awareness and appreciation of Native American cultures.

Understanding Native American Land Sovereignty

Land sovereignty has long been a critical issue for Native American communities. It refers to the inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves and their territories. However, Native American tribes have faced an extensive history of land dispossession, broken treaties, and federal policies that have undermined their sovereignty. This is why you may have encountered the phrase “land back,” which is associated with the Land Back Movement. 

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), along with proponents and allies of the Land Back Movement, advocate for the protection of tribal lands and natural resources, emphasizing the importance of self-governance and jurisdictional rights for Native communities

How Land Sovereignty Conflicts Have Led to Food Colonization

Food decolonization is another pressing issue that is closely tied to land sovereignty. Most Americans are taught the story of the first “Thanksgiving” in elementary school, which focuses on how the Wampanoag people and their leader, Chief Massasoit, saved the first Pilgrims from starvation by sharing their harvest feast. In fact, Native Americans have contributed about 60% of all foods used globally today, including many we couldn’t imagine living without:

  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Chili peppers
  • Vanilla 
  • Cacao

Traditional Native American diets were originally rich in these foods, which were locally sourced or traded. In addition, they were grown in ways that coexisted harmoniously or even improved the natural environment rather than depleting it. But as the United States became established, the government forced Native tribes to relocate, prevented them from hunting or fishing, and even prohibited reservation farming in some cases. 

Native communities lost access to traditional foods and natural medicines while being given rations of less healthy Western foods, such as dairy products, processed wheat, sugar, lard, and meat. In addition, the isolated nature of many reservations led to them becoming food deserts, or communities with limited access to affordable and healthy whole foods. This, in combination with limited socioeconomic opportunities, led to the fact that currently, one in four Indigenous people also experience food insecurity.

Further, all of these factors have contributed to what is now the highest ethnic rate of diabetes, heart disease, and other forms of comorbidity in America today.

Understanding Food Sovereignty and Food Decolonization

The concept of food sovereignty is gaining traction as a way to reclaim traditional food systems and improve the health and well-being of Native communities. Broadly defined, food sovereignty is the right of communities to define their own food systems, including the production, distribution, and consumption of food. This is only possible when communities have control over their lands and resources. 

One way Native communities can accomplish this is through more local farming, more farm-to-table practices, and more food-based businesses based on Indigenous culinary and growing traditions. In short, major aspects of food decolonization and food sovereignty involve cultural education and relocalizing agricultural and business ecosystems.

However, US state and federal governments have a grave responsibility to support Native land and food sovereignty as well. For example, the USDA Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative works to promote Native food ways, foods, agriculture markets, and public health by partnering with tribal support nonprofits.

What You Can Do

You can help to honor Native American Heritage Month and work to address issues related to land and food sovereignty by doing the following:

  • Educate yourself and others. The first step in addressing these issues is education. Use online resources to learn more and share this knowledge with others.
  • Support Native American organizations. Many nonprofits are working to protect tribal sovereignty and promote self-governance. Donating to these organizations can make a significant impact.
  • Promote food sovereignty initiatives. Support local initiatives that aim to restore traditional food systems. For example, food banks can partner with Native communities to promote food sovereignty.
  • Advocate for policy change. Engage with lawmakers to support policies that protect tribal lands and promote food sovereignty. Alternatively, vote for legislative measures and leaders aligned with these principles.

Support Native American Land and Food Sovereignty With ARCC

The Anti-Racism Commitment Coalition (ARCC) is an inclusive coalition of dedicated people committed to eradicating racism and spreading anti-racism throughout our communities, countries, and the world. We work to help and educate people on their transformative journey to anti-racism by providing access to related support and resources. 

You can help us to build a racism-free world. Subscribe to receive news and updates about our work. Be sure to check out our newsletters and ARCC of Change podcast series. Show your commitment to anti-racism by purchasing ARCC merchandise or by making a donation

Join us today!