Understanding Food Insecurity Among Native American Communities

25% of Native Americans, more than double the national rate, experience food insecurity. In Indigenous communities, 35% of children are food insecure (Feeding America). 18 of the 28 Native American counties in the United States were found to have high food insecurity (Move on Hunger). Many Native Americans live in food deserts, worsening food insecurity rates. In a food desert, a person in an urban area lives more than one mile from a grocery store, and a person living in a rural area lives more than 10 miles from a grocery store (USDA). The Navajo Nation, the United States’ largest reservation at 17 million acres, only has 13 grocery stores. Food insecurity rates are alarmingly high in Native American communities. Centuries of mistreatment have influenced the current food system. These numbers are influenced by historical land removal policies.  

Land is essential to Native American society. In the past, communities were experts on utilizing the resources of their regions. Native Americans built a strong food system through an environmentally friendly and communal model. Removed from their traditional lands, the system was broken, and food access became limited. The National Congress of American Indians emphasizes the importance of land in Native American culture; “Tribes look to their land and natural resources to provide and support essential elements of Native life and culture—from subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, to sources of economic development and tribal sacred places.” Crowfeet, Chief of the Blackfeet in 1885, shared that “as long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals.” Land is intimately connected with Native American livelihoods, including their food security, and Crowfeet wanted the government to know that selling the land would be the equivalent to “sell[ing] the lives of men and animals” (American Social History Project).  

Policies limiting Native American land access began at the onset of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is “the removal and erasure of Indigenous people in order to take the land for use by settlers in perpetuity” (Learning for Justice). The Indigenous Foundation explains that settler colonialism is unique as “it involves the total appropriation of Indigenous life and land.” In the United States, settler colonialism began with genocide and has since been furthered by land policies.  

Before colonization, an estimate of 54 million Indigenous people lived throughout the Americas (McGill University). Settlers continuously pushed Native Americans westward throughout the centuries following first contact. Initially, treaties were primarily relied on to regulate land use. One of the earliest, and most well know, federal pieces of legislation utilized to remove Native Americans is the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. It pushed Native Americans in Southeastern Territories out West. The forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from Tennessee to present day Oklahoma is now known as the Trail of Tears. During the relocation, 4,000 Cherokee died.  

These policies have had a long-term effect on Native American food security as they damaged the traditional Native food system. Through relocation, Native American communities were removed from their ancestral homelands, preventing them from being able to utilize their surroundings for food. Valerie Blue Bird Jernigan attributes the “high rate of food insecurity can be traced to the events that disrupted Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land.” She explains that her community, the Choctaw Nation, was forcibly relocated to reservations on arid planes despite being an agricultural society (The Conversation). Forced removal also pushed Native American communities to rely on government-issued foods. Many early treaties included the promise of food provisions from the government in return for taking their land. 

The Dawes Act of 1887 is another piece of federal legislation heavily impacting Native American land ownership. The Act established a federal system of allotment. Allotment was first used in non-federal treaties as early as 1798 (Indian Land Tenure Foundation). Land was seized by the government and then parceled out to Native and Non- Native people. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities emphasized that “often the choicest treaty lands- for example, parcels closest to streams for crop irrigation- were excluded from allotment.” Allotment “Cut off [Native Americans] from their livelihoods and their previous ways of survival” since they were based on land use (Indian Land Tenure Foundation).  

Between 1887 and 1934, when the Dawes Act was replaced, 90 million acres of land were transferred from Native American to settler ownership. This is the equivalent of the state of Montana today. Along with the Dawes Act, further land was removed from Native Americans through the 1906 Burke Act. The Act authorized the secretary of the interior to decide whether a Native American owner was “competent” to manage his/her land. If deemed competent, the land could be removed from the trust and become taxable, with or without the knowledge of the allottee. When allottees were unaware of the taxes, they couldn’t pay them, so the secretary would sell their land in foreclosure auctions. The secretary could also sell the land of a deceived allottee if determined that his/her heirs were “incompetent” (Indian Land Tenure Foundation). Today, although the policy of allotment ended, the Dawes Act still has an impact (Northern Plain Reservation Aid). All allotted lands, through the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, were placed indefinitely in a trust. Individuals do not own the land directly, since it is in a government trust, so they require approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in order to sell or lease the land.  

One problem the allotment system caused for today’s Native American population is fractionation. The land was split among the allottee’s heirs when he died, then split among their heirs, and so on. Land splitting also caused checkerboarding and complicated jurisdiction issues as land fragments moved between Native American and Non-Native heirs (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities). This system of passing on the land means hundreds of people could own a single parcel, making it difficult to utilize. In order to lease, sell, or use the land in a loan, the majority of shareholders need to agree, with hundreds of shareholders land use becomes heavily complicated. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains, “land policy has hampered the ability of Native producers to viably manage their lands, with significant economic and food insecurity impacts.” 

Although Northern Virginia doesn’t have a large Native American population currently, it was once the home of the Piscataway and Manahoac Nations (Native Land Digital). When considering food insecurity among Native Americans, its’ crucial to consider how the situation became so dire.  Land policy altered their traditional way of life and the thriving food system it created. Today many Native American activists are working to remedy the long-term impacts of discriminatory land policies through food sovereignty. The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance is working to “restor[e] the food systems that support Indigenous self-determination, wellness, cultures, values, communities, economies, languages, and families while rebuilding relationships with the land, water, plants, and animals that sustain us.” The Native American Youth and Family Center shares that food sovereignty is about “reclaiming Indigenous peoples’ ability,” much of which was forcibly forgotten through settler colonialism, “to access and manage traditional food sources.”