July 07, 2016

What Does It Mean to Be an Ally?

fertile ground blog

I recently had the privilege of representing MAZON at a Yurok Tribe gathering on food sovereignty that included members of the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath Tribes, which all call the northern California Klamath River Basin their home. There I joined deeply moving discussions in which tribal members debated how to reclaim their food traditions and protect their food resources for future generations. In these moments, I reflect on my responsibility as an ally and MAZON’s role as a co-partner in advancing Native-led food policy change. 

As an African-American woman representing a Jewish organization working in Indian Country, I call up our common history of genocide, persecution and discrimination as a starting place for shared analysis and perspective. But I do so knowing that non-Natives cannot direct the struggle for Native food security, no matter how well-meaning we are. I am reminded that being an effective ally for Native communities means looking for effective ways to support and stand with Native communities. 

fertile ground panelists
Panelists Jodi Gillette, Policy Advisor and Government Relations, Sonosky, Chambers, Enderson & Perry LLP; Jefferson Keel, Lieutenant Governor, Chickasaw Nation; and Mia Hubbard, Vice President of Programs, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. (Courtesy of American Heart Association)

Educate ourselves
Most Americans don’t realize that the US federal government has an obligation to compensate Native Americans on the basis of treaties and laws established when tribes relinquished their land centuries ago. This unique federal trust responsibility includes providing services, programs and other protections to tribes on a government-to-government basis. However, there is significant disparity in federal funding between Native Americans and other groups in our nation, as well as the general population. The US government spends about 50% less per capita on Native health than on Medicaid recipients, prisoners, veterans and military personnel. Our government must live up to its promises, and non-Native allies can carry this message to those in power. 

Call attention to structural causes of food insecurity
Obesity, food insecurity and diabetes impact Native individuals disproportionately, but larger factors give rise to these disparities. Colonialism, structural racism, and failed US policies combine to make the nutrition crisis in Indian Country even more acute. We should view the nutrition-related diseases experienced by Native Americans as a continuation of historical trauma. Therefore, allies need to help frame this crisis in more urgent terms, as an injustice that deserves our outrage.

Challenge our assumptions
When European settlers “discovered” the New World, they believed it was largely empty, ignoring the presence of rich, complex indigenous civilizations. As a result, food problems among Native people developed over centuries of forced change, with food used as a tool to colonize. Today, well-meaning anti-hunger advocates often start their work in Indian Country from the premise that Indian reservations are food deserts – a technical term for limited grocery access, but which also implies a void, remedied by bringing food and knowledge from the outside into an otherwise empty space. But activism that narrowly focuses on increasing access oversimplifies Native communities’ relationship to food. As the conversations at the Yurok gathering demonstrated, tribes are using food as a lever for economic development, to revitalize traditions and language, to heal from historical trauma, and to provide better health outcomes for their communities.

Be willing to define success differently
MAZON has long advocated for a strong federal government response to hunger. We also work to improve the operation of federal food programs in Indian Country, with a particular focus on Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. FDPIR provides a monthly commodity food package to about 85,000 low-income households on Indian reservations lacking easy access to SNAP offices or grocery stores. While FDPIR and other US government programs provide critical food resources to Native communities, these programs carry their own historical baggage. While MAZON’s initial priority of making federal food programs more responsive to Native community needs is critical, success should be defined by the ability of tribes to regulate, control and govern their own food systems. Food sovereignty is the ultimate goal.

Be committed for the long-term
I remember when MAZON made its first grant in Indian Country in the early 1990s. Today, Native food policy is a strategic priority of the organization; we don’t see our work in Indian Country as a project. These communities have been struggling for centuries to regain control over their lives and their food systems. We are contributing to a historic process that will take long-term investment in relationships and policy change. We are in it for the long haul.

It has been personally and professionally gratifying for me to lead MAZON’s work in this area. I’ve met some truly incredible advocates along the way. And I’ve found that our willingness to show up, our commitment to learn, and our efforts to elevate Native voices in the public policy arena demonstrate our deep desire to be effective allies for healthier Native communities.