Aicha Ly | Opinion Editor
Imagine losing aspects of your ancestry, having relatives, stories, and more taken away from you—relying on traditional and cultural practices such as food cultivation and hunting practices as some of your only remaining ties to your history and heritage. Now imagine living in a world where even that is at risk, your land and therefore your food source and sovereignty being threatened along with it. Most people would find this unacceptable, because as humans we have a naturally tendency to be compassionate. We are designed to be social creatures, to find solace in bonds to heritage and to others.
Indigenous people are constantly fighting to not be erased, but they cannot do it alone since they are so low in population and resources that are threatened by powers such as the United States government. Furthermore, there is a historical pattern of Indigenous voices being silenced or ignored. They need educated allies; people who are aware of the Native American sovereignty struggle who will join the fight without hijacking the goals and voices of Native Americans. There is power in numbers; more allies means more attention.
Americans in general should care and take action to protect the sovereignty of Indigenous people because not doing so contradicts the values embedded in our institutions and identities as Americans; we should all unite to protect the right to freedom and natural rights that we preach by allowing Native Americans to have freedom from fear of identity erasure and oppression through the taking of their lands and rights. Different demographics should care for more, unique reasons. For example, the youth should care because they are the future leaders of this nation and have the power to change the social and political dynamics of this nation in a way that maintains peace and equality through the destruction of ignorance through education. Socialization is important in shaping ideals and character. Adults should care, perhaps even more, because they can already vote (except for those suffering from felon disenfranchisement or issues with immigration status for example)—electing officials and supporting legislation that can either benefit or harm Native Americans.
Historical events have left impacts that are still apparent today. For example, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 formally authorized the removal of Native American from lands and in 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which was designed to put displaced Native Americans onto specific areas of land known as reservations (The reservation system, n.d.; History.com Editors, 2019). Through treaties defining stipulations of sovereignty among Native American tribes and political and economic dynamics with the United States government, reservations have been maintained. Some Native Americans have left in search of better opportunities, since Native Americans on reservations have the highest levels of poverty, the highest high school dropout rates, the worse healthcare and more (Native Americans and life on reservations, n.d.). Reservations that exist today are the last strongholds for the maintenance of Native American culture as they are recognized as nations independent of the United States. Unfortunately, the United States government has control over reservations and Native land to an extent still today. Most Native American land is known as “trust land,” which means the federal government holds legal title of these lands; the federal government somewhat controls Indigenous development when it comes to natural resources on their land for example (How revenue works, n.d.). Learning about food and land sovereignty can give an important insight into policies that prevent the traditional meat consumption and production among local Indigenous groups which may be generalizable and will undoubtedly give a more informed perspective to the struggles, resilience, and traditions of Native Americans. Education is empowerment; caring and learning about land and food sovereignty among Native Americans, which go hand in hand since some Native Americans rely on hunting which means they rely on having enough land which animals live upon to hunt on and enough land to farm on, will allow Americans to steer the United States government towards a direction that protects or at least respects these Indigenous rights through elections and legislation support or opposition through addition practices such as protests.
The consequences of failing to address this issue are severe. For example, policies in place that violate Native American treaties can increase poverty and mortality rates by cutting land for agriculture, increasing pollution in Native lands which can impact residential zones, and harming wildlife and biodiversity which makes hunting immensely more difficult. Some Native Americans have to hunt because they do not have as easy access to supermarkets or meat prices are too expensive (Food sovereignty efforts among Native Americans, n.d). The creation of pipelines through Native lands can lead to eutrophication from run off of chemicals which impacts wildlife such as fish which Native Americans may depend on as a staple for their diet and economy, as another example. This can kill off remaining Native Americans, or at the very least will erase much of the remaining Native American identity by forcing people to move from reservations in order to survive—abandoning traditions in order to survive a capitalistic country that fails to respect Native American sovereignty. In fact, it already is killing Native Americans. Native Americans consistently rank low in terms of health, education and employment due to factors such of lack of resources (Tribal and Native American issues, n.d.). This clearly correlates with disputes over Native American land and food sovereignty; violation of treaties which results in a decrease of territory for tribes due to lack of recognition or respect for sovereignty/self-determination results in less land to farm, hunt, build and live of off.
On the other hand, there are many benefits to being pro-active and effectively addressing the issue of Native American land and food sovereignty. For example, doing so protects Native Americans by ensuring they are culturally and politically recognized—holding the United States government accountable which allows Native Americans to confidently and freely maintain their identity through cultural practices and protections (social and legal). This is beneficial to Americans and the American government because it increases the legitimacy of the United States by demonstrating the nation can uphold and practice its ideals of freedom and equality by respecting treaties with Native American tribes through the protection of Indigenous land and food sovereignty rather than backtracking and taking advantage of them. Furthermore, it allows Native Americans to focus on lowering poverty rates by increasing generational wealth through the creation of businesses which do not abide by tax laws or other economic regulations enforced upon United States land by the United States government (Importance of sovereignty to tribal nations, 2017). Additionally, it has been proven that Native Americans who have food sovereignty are healthier because they cultivate food in a manner that is sustainable and culturally appropriate—aligning with their traditions, while adequately compensating those who provide food and upholding treating (NICOA, 2019).
It is clear that federal policy needs to be reformed in order to give Native American tribes full sovereignty over Native American lands. Action to ensure this should be taken and finalized by 2030. Why 2030? According to the United Nations, that is the year that catastrophe from climate change will essentially be irreversible. Traditional Native American practices relating to land and food are environmentally sustainable, so by then Native Americans should be given full control of their lands so they can continue the sustainability they have practiced for centuries. If financial help is needed in the form of trade or alliances of any sort, they can decide to create treaties. But the United States government needs to back off and let Indigenous nations make that decision themselves based on the needs and interests of Native Americans rather than meddling and micromanaging. Land sovereignty leads to control over so many factors that Native Americans have not had control over due to oppression. One example is food sovereignty; they should be able to hunt however they would like on their lands because they know based on traditions what is most culturally appropriate and likely healthy for their populations while not leaving behind a significant, unsustainable, and damaging ecological footprint.
To do this, a nationwide campaign needs to be launched in three parts. One is education reform. K-12 and even post-secondary education needs to implement more information regarding Native Americans that does not only fit into the European colonist narrative. There needs to be more interactive projects, such as having students take a trip to a Native American reservation or creating an independent project that positively contributes to reservations as a requirement for American History courses since Native American history is part of American history. The second part is an increase in the broadcast of indigenous platforms. For example, Native American Heritage Month needs to be popularized more. Perhaps there should be a National Native American Influencer week, where on new media platforms Indigenous creators are boosted. Finally, there needs to be an increase in grassroots movements designed to target voters especially around Election time so Americans can keep and vote in legislators who support Native American sovereignty. This can take the form of protests, with flyers, posters and speeches explaining the history of land sovereignty between Native Americans and the United States government and why it is so important to the livelihood of Native Americans to have complete sovereignty over their land, and can be tailored to state specific tribes for more impact if desired. The plan is to make the American public more educated about the struggles of Native American tribes, so they can be more informed when they vote and can therefore change legislation by controlling what legislators end up on office depending on where these politicians stand on issues such as Native American land sovereignty.
Overall, is it is clear that the United States government has a very long and complex history with Native Americans—who have suffered greatly. It will take many steps to get to this point, but it is paramount that initiatives are taken and enforced to better inform the American public about Native American tribes (specifically the issue of land sovereignty) so land injustices perpetuated by the United States government can be exposed and citizens can start to hold the government accountable through their constitutional rights and civic duty to vote. Addressing these issues will aid in the protection and maintenance of Native American identities and lives through the preservation of land, food sources, and traditions.
Food sovereignty efforts among Native Americans. (n.d.). https://borgenproject.org/food-sovereignty/
History.com Editors (2019, March 18). Indian Reservations. https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/indian-reservations
How revenue works. (n.d.). https://revenuedata.doi.gov/how-revenue-works/native-american-ownership-governance/
Importance of sovereignty to tribal nations. (2017, October 2). https://online.se.edu/articles/nal/importance-sovereignty-tribal-nations.aspx
Khan Academy. (n.d.). The reservation system. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american-west/a/the-reservation-system
Native Americans and life on reservations. (n.d.). https://borgenproject.org/native-american-reservations/
NICOA. (2019, April 26). The importance of food sovereignty. Tribal and Native American issues. (n.d.). https://www.gao.gov/tribal-and-native-american-issues