Community members on IFN plant foraging walk Credit: Kateri Tuttle

Minnesota tribal nations and urban Indigenous groups are at the forefront of the nationwide food sovereignty movement.  One of those groups is the Indigenous Food Network (IFN), a coalition of Indigenous-led organizations in Minneapolis working together to rebuild a sovereign food system for the urban American Indian community. Led by Dream of Wild Health, the IFN builds on the cultural knowledge of community members and uses an intertribal approach to increase access to and consumption of healthy Indigenous foods.

Food sovereignty asserts the rights of Indigenous communities to define their own diets, create food systems that are rooted in cultural values, and rebuild relationships between people and the land. Food sovereignty is vital in improving Indigenous health and addressing health inequities.

With support from funders such as the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the IFN is working to empower urban Indigenous community members to address issues of food insecurity and diet related illness through culturally based traditions and access to Indigenous foods.  The network is comprised of Dream of Wild Health, the Minneapolis American Indian Center, Native American Community Clinic, Four Sisters Farmers Market , a project of Native American Community Development Institute, Bdote Learning Center, Nawayee Center School, and Division of Indian Work.

Community members on IFN plant foraging walk. Photo Credit: Kateri Tuttle

According to Kateri Tuttle, IFN Program Coordinator, “simply put, for me, the ultimate purpose of the IFN is to connect and provide our Native population in the Twin Cities with opportunities to learn about traditional Indigenous foods and lifeways. The IFN is housed within Dream of Wild Health but the work of the IFN is done by so many amazing people and programs and the relationships we keep with them are extremely important.”

Reclaiming Community Health Through Food Sovereignty

Promoting Indigenous food sovereignty, Indigenous food education, and increasing access to local Indigenous foods have been the foci of the IFN, with the overarching goal of supporting community health and wellness.

“As a Dakota person, I know how connecting with the history of our ancestors, traditional foods, and food gathering practices is deeply impactful and meaningful,” said Kateri Tuttle. “I have seen firsthand that learning about these things and connecting with them as Indigenous peoples can be completely life changing and can help with things like depression and start building health and confidence immediately.”

Indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and diet-related illnesses. Despite modest improvements in the last few years, Indigenous peoples continue to have the highest rates of diabetes in the U.S. and Indigenous adults are almost three times more likely than white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes.

Exceptionally high rates of diabetes in tribal and urban Indigenous communities are the byproduct of colonization and systemic and structural inequities. The destruction of traditional Indigenous food systems along with imposed western diets are underlying causes of dietary illness in Indian Country. 

Prior to colonization, Indigenous Nations had highly sophisticated agricultural systems. Traditional foods are interconnected with tribal culture, language, and spiritual health. Traditional Indigenous diets are extremely diverse, but tend to be localized, seasonal, low-glycemic, and high in wild protein and essential fatty acids. 

Indigenous plant medicine foraged by community members. Photo credit: Kateri Tuttle

When tribes were forcibly removed and confined to fixed areas on reservations, food systems were destroyed and access to traditional foods were limited or completely eradicated. Traditional foods were replaced by rations provided by the federal government. Rations were comprised of unfamiliar foods like flour, sugar, and lard that held no cultural significance and were much higher in fat and sugar and lower in nutritional value.  

Federal policies of removal and assimilation, the loss of traditional foods systems, multigenerational trauma and geographic isolation have created extreme food insecurity, poverty, and health inequities for Indigenous peoples.  Thankfully, Indigenous communities, tribes, and groups such as the IFN are working to reclaim health by increasing access to Indigenous foods and creating sustainable food systems. “Being active and working with our seeds, the land, and with our plant relatives is healing and can feel like a direct connection to our ancestors and helps us build on, acknowledge and realize the connection we have had in the past with the land and our food,” said Kateri Tuttle.

Urban Food Sovereignty

The Twin Cities is home to one of the largest and most tribally diverse urban Indigenous populations in the nation. Community members are hungry for knowledge and looking for opportunities to connect with Indigenous foods. IFN partner organizations each play their own unique role in advancing food sovereignty for the Minneapolis Indigenous community.

According to Kateri, “there are a lot of Indigenous people, especially youth, who are developing and nurturing their interest in working with plants and seeds, which in turn may encourage them to get into things like food science, environmental science, and possibly farming. This is really exciting because we need more Indigenous and BIPOC farmers!”

Community members on IFN plant foraging walk, led by Hope Flannigan from Dream of Wild Health. Photo credit: Kateri Tuttle

The IFN takes an intergenerational and multidisciplinary approach to their work, which includes efforts such as developing school curriculum on Indigenous foods, increasing Indigenous foods in K-12 school lunches, serving healthy Indigenous foods at community events, increasing access to land for growing food, seed keeping, and more.

IFN partner Minneapolis American Indian Center has been at forefront of making the change from serving processed foods at community events to serving healthy Indigenous foods. Gatherings Café, located within the Minneapolis American Indian Center, was one of the first places to replace unhealthy ingredients and meals with fresh Indigenous foods. Under the leadership of Chef Brian Yazzie, the Café serves traditional foods such as wild rice, bison, walleye, squash, and Indigenous teas in place of soda and frybread.

The IFN is only beginning their work and is already making a positive impact on the health of Indigenous community members. “We are excited to be a part of this Indigenous food movement and community here in the Twin Cities and are honored to do this work to help create opportunities to build health and wellness for our Native people and families,” said Kateri.

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