Celebrating Indigenous People’s Day and Food!

October 9, 2023

Harriet and Helen (Diné) community elders from Vanderwagen, N.M., hold corn and cabbage at Spirit Farm. PHOTO © JAMES SKEET. 

It’s been one year since President Biden declared the second Monday in October to be Indigenous People’s Day. In his words, this is a day to “honor the sovereignty, resilience and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world.” However, this reclamation existed long before this proclamation. Indigenous people originally proposed the holiday to a panel at the United Nations in 1977, with South Dakota making the switch from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in 1989. While there is no singular way to recognize, celebrate, or honor this day, as a food-access and environmental organization, We Don’t Waste feels it is a great opportunity to share how indigenous communities have been effective land conservationists and sustainable farmers. 

When looking at land that is maintained and cared for by the people native to it, there is ecological equivalence, meaning that there is the same or more biodiversity, to lands that are formally under conservation. A 2020 study showed that the proportion of intact forests, areas that are critical for mitigating global warming/climate change, is significantly higher when under the care of the ancestral Indigenous peoples of that land. Despite these findings, these communities continue to be the most disproportionately affected by climate change, land degradation, and economic and social inequality because of land dispossession. 

One method we can learn from when it comes to sustainable land is agroforestry. You may have heard of this concept because of the three sisters: planting beans, corn and squash together. This is a method that utilizes the physiological aspects of given plants, as well as their chemical outputs, to benefit the growth of the plants with which they are cultivated. What does this mean in simpler terms? Planting beans, corn and squash next to each other massively benefits the growth of each plant. Corn provides the stalk on which the beans can grow, and beans provide additional nutrients to support the corn growth. Squash provides necessary protection from pest and traps moisture in the roots for both plants on the ground level while receiving nutrients from both.

By cultivating this biodiversity, the health of the soil improves (instead of eroding over time like many modern farming practices), as well as increasing the amount of wildlife that can be sustained. On a purely economic level, agroforestry also provides a variety of crops so farmers have a lower likelihood of crop failure while also increasing the likely profits of their efforts. 

Another method we can learn from is crop rotation. Many modern farmers practice monoculture, which is planting the same crop in the same fields year after year. This is partly because this style of farming was seen as more affordable because the planting and harvesting processes could be streamlined, as well as a decreased investment cost for specialized tools and machinery. However, over the years monoculture has been incredibly detrimental to soil health. By keeping a rotation of plants, there are benefits similar to agroforestry, leading to better soil health, which sustains the efficiency and lifespan of any given farming land. 

A-dae Romero-Briones

In an interview with Bioneers, A-dae Romero-Briones, the Director of Programs of Agriculture and Food Systems for the First Nations Development Institute, said “It’s important to keep in mind that food is an indicator of the health of a society… But because we have the extra barrier of food access through money, food no longer is that indicator…When that happens, people are disconnected from society and from the collective resources that go into making food.” 

We Don’t Waste sees this issue first hand every day. We host our Mobile Food Markets in food apartheids (aka food deserts) where communities have been disconnected from their sources of food. We might not be able to solve large-scale issues like indigenous sovereignty, or land reparations, but we can help mitigate the problems of food access that are a result of this disconnect. 

If you’d like to learn more about our food system, and how you can help improve nutrition and food security in our Denver community, check out our education and volunteer opportunities, or make a gift and We Don’t Waste will stretch your dollar to recover and distribute dozens of servings of food at no cost to our community!