What is Food Sovereignty?

The term “food sovereignty” originated in the 1990s with La Via Campesina, a self-described international peasants’ movement that fights injustice in food systems. La Via Campesina defines food sovereignty as “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” (viacampesina.org).

Food sovereignty and tribal sovereignty are inextricably linked. When members of tribal governments in the Puget Sound region signed the Point Elliot Treaty in 1855, the first priority of tribal sovereignty was access to traditional foods. This was maintained in the treaty by access to “the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations … together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses” (Indian Treaty Fishing Rights) but continues to be a source of conflict in Washington and anywhere settler colonial contact with Indigenous peoples has taken place.

The acts of harvesting, hunting and preparing our traditional foods are more than just feeding hunger and sense of identity; it is also about our mental health and our own self worth – Valerie Segrest, Muckleshoot

Food sovereignty has grown into a movement in many tribal communities in this region, with access to traditional foods as the focus of educational and cultural programs as well as transdisciplinary research into sustainability and reclamation of wild harvested foods. Conservation is a key focus, but so are the concepts of food as medicine and promoting health, longevity, and healing in Indigenous communities. Food sovereignty, embodied in the practice of harvesting and preparing traditional foods, is one means by which Indigenous groups today are generating and participating in their own survivance, the act of not only surviving but thriving and creating health for future generations.

Decolonizing foodways means exploring the ways that settler colonial contact has violently disrupted the connection between Indigenous bodies and Indigenous land, and exploring ways to reclaim and promote Indigenous health and the health of traditional food systems. It involves situating ourselves, the researchers, reflexively in our work, asking what this research can do to promote and center the needs of Indigenous communities. It also involves using our platform to document and celebrate Indigenous food sovereignty movements taking place and the people – teachers, activists, scholars, archaeologists, tribal governments, chefs, care providers, and protectors of knowledge – who are working tirelessly to enact change.

Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot) on food sovereignty

Upcoming Events

Salmon People: Northwest Native Opposition to Genetically Engineered Fish

  • Tuesday, April 9 at 6pm, Langston Hughes Performing arts Center – 104 17th Ave South, Seattle, 98144
  • “What are the risks from genetically engineered fish to the people and environments of the Pacific Northwest? New Canoe Media tackles this question head-on with their new short film Salmon People. Now Town Hall joins forces with CAGJ to screen this powerful new film and call together a panel of indigenous and advocacy perspectives—all key activists working on Northwest Native food security and justice in the Pacific Northwest. Sit in to hear from the voices across the Pacific Northwest who are speaking out about the risks of genetically engineered fish.”
  • https://townhallseattle.org/event/salmon-people/

Living Breath of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ  Symposium – Indigenous Foods and Ecological Knowledge

  • Friday, May 3 and Saturday, May 4 2019 at the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ Intellectual House, University of Washington campus
  • Reclaiming Food as Family Medicine – “This symposium brings people together to share knowledge on topics such as traditional foods, plants and medicines; environmental and food justice; food sovereignty; health and wellness; and treaty rights. Indigenous peoples in the Northwest have maintained a sustainable way of life through a cultural, spiritual, and reciprocal relationship with their environment. This symposium serves to foster dialogue and build collaborative networks as we, Native peoples, strive to sustain our cultural food practices and preserve our healthy relationships to the land, water, and all living things.”
  • http://www.livingbreathsymposium.org

Pre-contact Coast Salish Foods

The University of Washington’s Burke Museum featured an exhibit in 2013 that highlighted the variety and diversity of pre-contact Coast Salish foods. Working in collaboration with members of tribal communities and Elise Krohn, a traditional foods specialist at Northwest Indian College, archaeologists Dr. Peter Lape and Dr. Robert Kopperl surveyed 130 archaeological sites in King, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties and gathered ethnographic data from tribal elders about traditional Coast Salish foods. They compiled the following list of over 280 foods eaten by Coast Salish peoples over the last 10,000 years.

credit: burkemuseum.org

The categories of foods, including plants, birds, mammals, fish and reptiles, and shellfish and other marine life, is significant because it points to variety and seasonality in traditional diets, both of which contribute to health of the body and healthy, sustainable food systems. When contrasted with the typical “modern” American diet consisting of about 12 food types that are eaten on a regular basis, eating a variety of foods provides essential nutrients and prevents diseases that can be triggered by overconsumption of one food type, such as type 2 diabetes. Elise Krohn discusses food diversity further in the recordings on the Burke Museum’s Salish Bounty site, under “Stories of Food and Cultural Values” – you can listen here.

Activism and Anthropology

Some Indigenous and non-Indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists who are currently working with food sovereignty, as well as with climate and food justice

Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook: http://jklmastenbrook.net/ 

Nancy J. Turner: https://www.uvic.ca/socialsciences/environmental/people/faculty/emeritus/turnernancy.php

Dana Lepofsky: http://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/faculty/lepofsky.html 

Robin W. Kimmerer: https://www.esf.edu/faculty/kimmerer/

Elizabeth Hoover: https://vivo.brown.edu/display/emhoover

Devon A. Mihesuah: http://www.aihd.ku.edu/exercise/AboutMeMihesuah.html 

Charlotte Coté: https://ais.washington.edu/people/charlotte-cote

Kyle Powys Whyte: https://kylewhyte.cal.msu.edu/

Ron Reed: https://nature.berkeley.edu/karuk-collaborative/?page_id=171

Fight over Indigenous Vegan-ism: Diet Comparison

Promoting vegetarianism and veganism are usually considered to be aspects of colonization. However with the spread of colonization, health outcomes have changed significantly for Indigenous omnivore and vegetarian/vegan diets. Cruelty-free diets have resulted in increased sources of magnesium and folic acid (Craig 1) but decreased sources of protein. The nutritional profile of vegetarian/vegan has been similar to Western health outcomes. Usually vegan diets are considered most accessible to white middle-class individuals but as settler colonialism is widespread, Indigenous peoples begin accessing more cruelty free options. The effect of colonial contact on Indigenous bodies has been positive although for many years the Indigenous diet has been considered clean, unprocessed, and adequate to maintain nutritional demands over Western diets. Colonialism did not invent cruelty free diets but has supported their growth among peoples.

Winston J Craig; Health effects of vegan diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 5, 1 May 2009, Pages 1627S–1633S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N

Shridhar, K., Dhillon, P. K., Bowen, L., Kinra, S., Bharathi, A. V., Prabhakaran, D., Reddy, K. S., … Ebrahim, S. (2014). Nutritional profile of Indian vegetarian diets–the Indian Migration Study (IMS). Nutrition journal, 13, 55. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-55

Hunting as a Ritual Practice

Hunting has been considered a staple part of Indigenous life. However, Western society has created animal rights as a way of protecting treatment and hunting of animals by Indigenous Peoples. The controversies rely on whether it is ethical to hunt animals for survival or to interfere with Indigenous food, practices and way of life. One side accounts for animals being scarce and sentient beings that need protection, whereas the other side accounts that animals and humans cannot be separated from each other and must live in coalition. For years humans have lived with other animals and learned to take and return gifts to the land. With this relationship existing, humans have been able to live sustainably and their diets remain clean. With the introduction of Western ideologies and research, risks associated with hunting and its sustainability have been raised. It was discovered that the environmental health of where these practices are occurring are put on the line and risk human health and well-being. However, before Western ideologies and research, Indigenous peoples lived sustainably from the land and did not suffer the effects of colonization.

King, U., & Furgal, C. (2014). Is hunting still healthy? Understanding the interrelationships between indigenous participation in land-based practices and human-environmental health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 11(6), 5751-82. doi:10.3390/ijerph110605751

Project Profile: Camas Prairie Cultural Ecosystems Incubator

Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve

Environmental Anthropologist Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook (University of Washington) is involved in a project with the UW Earthlab that seeks to foster understanding of the importance of camas and explore the ways camas can be managed and harvested in the context of food sovereignty and Indigenous land and ecosystem management. This UW Earthlab group consists of ecologists, educators, anthropologists, ethnobotanists and conservations from academia, tribal communities, nonprofits, industry and government, working together toward the goals of education – focusing in particular on younger generations of K-12 and college students – and conservation from a cultural and an ecological standpoint. The group began their work in 2017 with a camas harvesting event at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve in southwest Washington, with around 60 tribal members from nine groups participating.

One of the core values of this transdisciplinary group is to work as a self-described “community of practice” learning from the land and also learning from each other; I interpret this to mean disrupting normative values of who can learn what from whom, and considering the possibility that science can learn as much from traditional practice as traditional practice can from science. Crucial to this is the idea of looking at camas and its habitat as a cultural – not merely biological – ecosystem. This conceptualization necessarily centers tribal needs and interests and re-connects Indigenous health and foodways to this ecosystem through a specific plant while acknowledging interdisciplinary, non-normative ways of knowing and producing knowledge.

Further reading on UW’s Dr. Joyce Lecompte-Mastenbrook and the UW EarthLab Project 

Project Title: Camas Prairie Cultural Ecosystems Incubator

Project Leads: Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook (UW Program on the Environment) and Sarah Hamman (Center for Natural Lands Management)

Tribal Community Involvement: over 60 individuals from nine tribal communities (need to do further research to be able to explicitly state who is involved and the nature of these relationships)

Project Goals: development of transdisciplinary Cultural Conservation Education and Research Program

Values: 1) reciprocal benefits for all participants, 2) shared importance of social, cultural and biophysical values, and 3) transformative learning expressed into clear outcomes (LeCompte and Hamman 2017)

Keywords from the project site: cultural food, deep time, co-evolution, cultural ecosystems, management, community of practice, transdisciplinary

Challenges: privileging certain standards of proof and ways of knowing, building trust between tribal communities, scientists, land managers and agencies (LeCompte and Hamman 2017)

UW’s EarthLab site


Dr. Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook, professional site


Gary Paul Nabhan, Food from the Radical Center (excerpt) Island Press 2018


Camas on Campus

Archaeologist and University of Oregon faculty member Madonna Moss has researched camas as part of the traditional pre-contact diet of the Kalapuya people of western Oregon, part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In 2017 she worked with a group of graduate students, under the supervision of Dr. David Lewis (Grand Ronde) and Marie Knight (Warm Springs), to dig camas bulbs and to clean, process, and bake them in an earth oven located at the Many Nations Longhouse on the university campus. In her blog she writes that earth ovens (or pit ovens) for roasting camas have been dated to more than 9000 years ago, and are prolific throughout the Pacific Northwest region. Dr. Moss’ blog gives an account of this process. This work is significant because, like the Songhees First Nations camas roast on the University of Victoria Campus, it involves utilizing the platform of the university campus to draw attention to traditional Indigenous foodways and food sovereignty.

Further reading on Dr. Madonna Moss’ archaeological work at the University of Oregon

Dr. Madonna Moss, University of Oregon blog