This organization is upheld by people coming from cultures that value reciprocity, and recognize that gratitude is at the center of food sovereignty and Indigenous foodways because they are grounded in systems that give back as much as, or more than, they receive.
Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.
The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance
The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) is a national network of Indigenous leaders dedicated to restoring vibrant Indigenous food systems that support tribal self-determination, community wellness, and rebuilding relationships with the land, water, plants and animals that sustain us. NAFSA works to provide specialized resources and direct support, and to build inter-tribal solidarity within the network of Turtle Island (North America) of food sovereignty knowledge keepers and practitioners seeking to reinvigorate their ancestral foodways. The NAFSA team shares more about how their work cultivates resilience, love, and connection to each other and the Earth.
What sparked the founding/creation of NAFSA?
The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) is a 501 c3 non-profit organization that was officially incorporated in 2014 following two years of efforts to develop an organization and mission with input from hundreds of Native food producers and organizations. NAFSA was an idea which incubated during a Taos County Economic Development Corporation grant from Oxfam America in 2005. Through this grant, the funder was interested in bringing together grassroots Native food activists over an extended period of time to see a greater impact on Native food systems. During these convenings, participants from 13 tribes came together to share their knowledge and skills in agriculture, seed saving, and ancestral foods. These activities resulted in our first attempted seed sovereignty declaration, a completed food sovereignty declaration, and eventually, the creation of NAFSA itself.
How does NAFSA speak to the needs and hopes of Native food producers, eaters, organizations, and communities as a whole? What is the importance of your work at this time in particular?
NAFSA is a national network of Indigenous leaders dedicated to restoring vibrant Indigenous food systems that support tribal self-determination, community wellness, and rebuilding relationships with the land, water, plants and animals that sustain us. We work to provide specialized resources and direct support, and to build inter-tribal solidarity within the network of Turtle Island (North America) of food sovereignty knowledge keepers and practitioners seeking to reinvigorate their ancestral foodways. Our signature programming — the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network, Food and Culinary Mentorship, and food sovereignty gatherings — are all directed towards providing support in various areas of growth within the food sovereignty movement. In this time where ecological decline and biodiversity loss can be mirrored in the struggles our Indigenous communities face, we cultivate our nations’ resilience in returning to the land-based knowledge and skills that have been handed down to us.
Through our virtual challenges, fairs, and storytelling initiatives, we uplift the experiences and voices of those who are dedicated to this work.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed an aggravation of the already existing food security and food quality issues faced in so many of our communities. With Indigenous families continually being struck by unprecedented rates of illness and loss from this pandemic, it has revealed exactly how dire the situation is for many tribal communities who have been detached from reliance on their ancestral foodways by the forces of colonization. NAFSA has worked over the past year to shift and adapt our signature programming to provide mutual aid in the form of nationwide distributions of organic and traditional heirloom seeds to Indigenous families, and to continually offer virtual learning opportunities to grow food sovereignty skills, safely.
In addition to supporting the resurgence of Indigenous food systems to carry us through hardship, NAFSA also seeks to celebrate the beauty of these lifeways, and the relatives who care for them. Through our virtual challenges, fairs, and storytelling initiatives, we uplift the experiences and voices of those who are dedicated to this work. We recognize that alongside the recognition of the challenges there are to overcome in our pursuit of food sovereignty, there is a great deal to give thanks for and be inspired by.
What is the importance of food sovereignty, particularly for Indigenous Peoples? What does a dynamic Native food system look like?
Indigenous food sovereignty is central to tribal sovereignty. Our foodways are central components in our cultural ecologies — tied to our land, kinship systems, wellness, language, and core values. At NAFSA, we describe a seed-to-table cycle that encompasses our vision of community food sovereignty and sustainable Indigenous food systems. This starts with access to traditional and regionally adapted seed, and cycles directly back to the kitchens and seed banks in the community.
There isn’t a singular definition of a dynamic Indigenous food system, because each tribal community and nation is unique, with its own foodways and land base. At NAFSA, we have found and believe that re-establishment of ancestral trade routes, implementation of Indigenous-led policy, de-industrialization of food distribution, intergenerational mentorship, resource development, and restored land access all contribute to the cultivation of a foundation that sets all of our communities on the path to wellness and dignified resurgence.
How do you see NAFSA as embodying and cultivating gratefulness and related qualities (reverence, reciprocity, belonging, etc.) through its work?
Indigenous agriculture and foodways are diverse and unique to each nation and community – but between many of them, gratitude and reciprocity are recognized as core values that inform our interactions, not only with one another, but with the land as well. When you see all members and facets of nature — as extended family members, as equal beings, giving thanks often becomes necessary and natural, as we seek to express appreciation for the beauty and abundance afforded to us by the natural world. We see gratitude as a key element in Indigenous foodways — as essential as the sun and water are to sprout and grow the seeds we plant.
How does gratefulness inspire you to make change in the world?
In following the example of our crops and seeds which give abundantly to the next generation, at its core, the work NAFSA does today is on behalf of the generations still to come. As our ancestors once did for us, we work to lay a foundation for an improved, resilient future for the nations of the future. This organization is upheld by people coming from cultures that value reciprocity, and recognize that gratitude is at the center of food sovereignty and Indigenous foodways because they are grounded in systems that give back as much as, or more than, they receive.
We see our work as … rooted in love for community, in our connection to land, and our dedication to tending resilient futures for our people.
How does NAFSA inspire care for seeds, the Earth, and each other?
Indigenous seedkeepers utilize the term “re-matriation” to describe the return of ancestral seed varieties to their home communities and original cuisines. One of NAFSA’s key areas of impact, through our Indigenous Seedkeepers Network, is to facilitate the re-matriation of seeds — which we have successfully done over the past few years through the return of more than 25 varieties of corn, beans, squash, and other crops which were removed or displaced from their original keepers at various points in time and kept in private or public collections like seed banks, museums, universities, and seed companies. However, we could also apply the concept of re-matriation to the broader scope and goal of the food sovereignty movement: a return to life, creation, and our original teachings, to carry us into the future.
NAFSA is also proud to be led by a staff dedicated to tending a culture of care within our organization, grounded in our Indigenous core values. We see our work as an organic extension of the work we individually do as seedkeepers, chefs, farmers, wild harvesters, grandmothers, mothers, aunties, daughters, and sisters — rooted in love for community, in our connection to land, and our dedication to tending resilient futures for our people.
What is the lasting impact of NAFSA’s work? What are the ripples effects?
In these times of hardship and instability, many of our communities are naturally turning to the stable resilience of the traditional skills that have sustained our ancestors. With Indigenous-led food sovereignty coalitions, farms, food production groups, and restaurants budding throughout Turtle Island, we are witnessing a widespread movement of reclamation and resurgence of Indigenous foodways, as well as the effort to bring them into a contemporary context. Our programming seeks to assist in this cultural reclamation and invigoration, which opens the door to our collective wellness and resurgence.
What are some of the barriers and obstacles faced by NAFSA as it works toward its vision?
As Indigenous People work towards the revitalization of both our ancestral foodways and our cultural traditions, we are constantly working against the immense impacts of colonization, acculturation, assimilation and the impacts of the genocide that still have very tangible challenges that native people face to the current day. As we work to support Indigenous communities in their quest to become more food sovereign, we consistently see that Indigenous people have no problem using their radical imaginations to bring ancestral knowledge into a modern context in their food systems change, yet often have issues around resource, capital, loss of landbase, systemic inequalities, and poverty that keep these dreams from becoming reality. With the right financial resources, capital, landbase, and mentorship, Indigenous people will be empowered to be leaders in the food sovereignty movement to reimagine the future of food in ways that align with our deep cultural values of reverence, respect, and reciprocity with our Mother Earth and all our relations.
Above all, we extend our utmost gratitude to the elders and to our lands — they are the backbone of food sovereignty and our communities’ resilience.
How does NAFSA plan to grow?
Our alliance is presently growing towards the expansion of our capacity. We are working towards a future in which our alliance can provide on-the-ground, region-specific support. This is already in development through the creation of our first Regional Indigenous Seed Growers Cooperative and Indigenous Seedkeepers Network, based in the Upper Midwest. This inter-tribal, regional network is rooted in a comprehensive regional seed cooperative exchange model that supports access and kinship networks for sharing Indigenous seeds. These partnerships cultivate and produce varieties of Indigenous seeds that can be distributed to tribal communities in annual seed drives. In tending these networks, NAFSA also provides training, support, tools, and assistance with the use of our signature Seed Sovereignty Assessment Toolkit — each of these components strengthens the overall seed and food security of each region where these efforts unfold. The Upper Midwest Indigenous Seed Growers Cooperative is a model of regional cooperatives and networks NAFSA aims to assist in cultivating in regions throughout Turtle Island. We are invested in alliance building efforts, and adapting our programming to the needs of community conveyed to us by our leadership, membership, and partners.
If you could share just one message for people who are involved with NAFSA, what would that be?
We honor and appreciate all of the individuals and communities who make up NAFSA’s community. We continually strive to build alliances and solidarity between our communities, our relatives, and our allies, for the benefit of our collective futures. We also seek to support and uplift those who are still learning, and striving to dedicate their lives to keeping these systems of knowing alive. Above all, we extend our utmost gratitude to the elders and to our lands — they are the backbone of food sovereignty and our communities’ resilience.
If NAFSA could share one message about living gratefully, what would it be?
In reflection of our community values which direct us towards living in respect and reciprocity for the Earth, we would implore all to consider extending your gratitude to the elements of nature around you. Just as gratitude is important in our own lives to extend to our friends and relatives who help us, it is important to also offer our gratitude to the land which nourishes us all. There is an opportunity in giving thanks to reciprocate what is given to us through mutual care – at this point in time, it is crucially important that we care for, and protect, our planet and all who call it home.
What are some meaningful ways people can support your work?
You can follow NAFSA on Instagram at @nativefoodalliance or subscribe to our quarterly newsletter at nativefoodalliance.org to be the first to hear about opportunities to support our work.
To read more about this inspiring project, visit the website: nativefoodalliance.org
To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers
Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.