The Seeds of Food Injustice: The Connection of Colonization and Food Injustice in North America

The modern food justice movement began in 1996. Food justice aims to ensure the benefits and risks of what we eat, where it comes from, how it is grown, produced, distributed, accessed (including access to culturally important foods), and eaten are shared equally. It seeks to transform the current food system in order to eliminate disparities and inequalities. This includes those issues very often ignored by those in a privileged position such as, workers’ rights, the affordability and accessibility of healthy food, sustainability of food production, and racial and economic justice. Food justice has been approached in many ways without considering the foundations of food injustice and inequality in colonization. However, in order to make positive long-term changes to the food system and eliminate inequalities and disparities one must put food justice in the larger context of colonization and how it is connected to the dispossession of land, racism, and sexism. After understanding how food insecurity in North America is founded in the colonization of the Americas, we can see how decolonizing the North American food systems can, indeed, help us to achieve and secure food justice and food security in the long term. In this way, rather than treating the symptoms of food insecurity, we can get to the root of and find real solutions to the problem.

Colonization is the practices, both formal and informal, that perpetuate the exploitation and subjugation of Indigenous peoples, their lands, and resources. These practices include, but are not limited to behaviors, ideologies, policies, institutions, and economics. Colonization occurs when one power subjugates another. During the process of colonization one power, in the case of North America European powers, dominates and overpowers another, Indigenous peoples. In order to do this, the colonizing power, enslaves, kills, forcefully assimilates, and exploits those they seek power over. Colonization is brutal, violent, and genocidal. Our colonial foundation is based on inequality, sexism, and white supremacy.

Arthur Manuel, in Whose Land is it Anyway: A Manual for Decolonization, argues that colonization is based on three fundamental components; Dispossession, dependence, and oppression. (McFarline & Schabus, 2017)


Dispossession is the act of depriving someone of property, land, or other resources. When colonizers arrived in America from Europe, they claimed the land they were now on as their own. The land they had “discovered” now arbitrarily belonged to them to the exclusion of those who had lived in North America for thousands of years. By doing so colonizers excluded Indigenous populations from their ancestral homes where they lived and where everything they needed, from clothing and tools to food, was provided for them by the land. This is the beginning of food injustice and food insecurity in North America.

Before sustained contact with colonial forces the diets of Indigenous peoples were varied and contained all the nutrients they needed to survive and be healthy. Through horticulture and hunting and gathering Indigenous people provided for themselves and their communities. When colonization began and prolonged contact with colonial forces became inevitable, Indigenous people were no longer able to provide the proper nutrients for themselves or for their communities.
“Not withstanding regional variations, the precontact Native American diet was relatively nutrient dense, incorporating varied macronutrients and micronutrients through hunting and gathering practices and indigenous forms of horticulture and agriculture that were subsequently disrupted. Thanks to the deleterious and often deliberate effects of colonization deeply rooted food systems were ruptured.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 15)


Before colonization a staple in the Indigenous diet was acorns. Acorns, which are found throughout North America, were used in order to supplement Indigenous diets. Acorns were processed in order to remove the tannic acid they contain by pulverizing, soaking, and chemically binding to iron sources. In fact, acorns were the predominant plant staple in the Southeast until the introduction of maize. Acorns were ground into a powder resembling grain flour; however, this acorn powder was much more nutrient dense than maize or grain flour.
“Acorn was the dominant plant staple in the southeast until the introduction of maize, particularly as populations grew, and continued to be consumed later in indigenous history. Nuts and acorns were often ground up into flours that resembled grain or maize flour, but were in fact higher in fat and lower in carbohydrate.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 84)
After, colonization and extended contact with colonizers, acorns became harder to access and use.

Grazing Animals & Hunting & Gathering Practices

As grazing animals and grain agriculture were introduced in California by the Spanish, traditional indigenous subsistence methods and ecology were disrupted. Before colonization, and the introduction of “private property” by Europeans, Indigenous populations were able to access shared hunting and gathering spaces. When colonizers brought the idea of private property with them, they began to fence off places they arbitrarily considered theirs. They used fences to exclude the Indigenous people who had been hunting and gathering in those spaces for thousands of years. This became an even more serious problem in 1848 with the discovery of gold in California. “The discovery of California gold in 1848 marked a sudden turn toward the encouragement of private property rights in horticulture and hunting centers.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 178)

Much of the hunting zones that remained were divided. The livestock the colonizers brought with them ate the food sources that Indigenous people counted on for nutrition and survival. This means, not only were they cut off from their traditional hunting and gathering spaces, but now there was more competition for these nutritious resources. “Domesticated livestock, such as cattle, pigs, and sheep consumed native food sources, such as acorns while farmers prevented California Indians from hunting and harvesting on what they suddenly announced was private property.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 178)

The American Bison

Before colonization the American bison was a hunting staple. Bison used to roam North America in vast herds. In the 1500’s, there was an estimate of 30 to 60 million bison roaming in North America. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 2014) When European colonizers arrived in North America, they brought with them livestock and all the issues that comes with raising livestock, such as cattle diseases. In addition to cattle diseases new livestock needed to eat. This created competition for resources affecting the American bison. As European settlements expanded, they changed the native habitat through farming which affected the population of bison.

By the 19th century, the mass destruction of bison began. What was once a healthy staple hunted by Indigenous peoples in North America became scarce. In 1870 alone it is estimated that 2 million bison were killed on the southern plains. In addition, at this time Germany developed a process to tan bison hides into a fine leather and it was discovered that bison were very useful and profitable to own. With this in mind colonizers began to round up wild bison that once roamed freely to establish private herds. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 2014) This had a massive effect on the Indigenous people who depended on hunting bison for their survival. “By 1889, William Hornaday estimated total bison population to be just over 1000 animals.” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 2014) A nutritious source of lean protein Indigenous people had depended on for thousands of years was now yanked away from them and arbitrarily turned into private property. “When that lean, high protein source was eliminated, the people starved, further weakening them and making them more susceptible to disease.” (Wilson & Yellowbird, 2005, p. 69) Bison were now controlled by the colonizers to the exclusion of Indigenous people, creating food insecurity and injustice.

Food Cultivation Before Colonization

There is a common belief that before colonization Indigenous peoples did not cultivate the land or have agriculture. This belief has been spread by colonizers in order to support the idea that Indigenous peoples were lazy and unable to take care of themselves. “Within the bundle of colonial strategies, a particularly useful tool was the notion that Indigenous peoples were incompetent, lazy, and unable to cultivate their land, making it open for – indeed requiring – seizure.” (Rotz, 2007, p. 163) However, before colonization, Indigenous peoples cultivated more than three hundred food crops in addition to hunting and gathering. “Indigenous populations throughout the Americas also maintained their health and nutrition by cultivating more than three hundred food crops (many with dozens of varieties or strains).” (Wilson & Yellowbird, 2005, p. 68)

In addition to hunting and gathering practices, Indigenous diets consisted of many cultivated foods such as many varieties of maize, beans, squash, and potatoes. All of which were harvested and planted by many Indigenous Peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. “Our [Indigenous People] rich and varied diets included such basics as numerous varieties of corn, beans, squash and three thousand varieties of potatoes, planted and harvested by Indigenous Peoples covering a broad geographical sweep in the Western hemisphere.” (Wilson & Yellowbird, 2005, p. 68) There were also regional foods which were cultivated by the Indigenous Peoples in that region, such as, black walnuts, wild rice, blueberries, and cranberries. Like their hunting and gathering practices, Indigenous people’s agricultural practices were disrupted and replaced by their colonizers.
Indigenous plants and animals were often eliminated as farm lands and grazing lands were created for foreign animals such as cattle and sheep. These acts of invasion and colonization meant a total disruption of Indigenous ways of life and a tremendous loss of life. (Wilson & Yellowbird, 2005, p. 69)

The Three Sisters

The Indigenous system of cultivation was biodiverse. For instance, Indigenous peoples cultivated what is called the Three Sisters; maize, beans, and squash. The Three Sisters were cultivated in order to compliment hunting and gathering. When planted together the Three Sisters work together to help each other thrive. Today, this is called mixed cropping. The maize, with its long stalks grew first and was perfect for supporting the crawling vines of beans. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil and help to strengthen the stalks of the maize to protect against strong winds.
Beans provide nitrogen to fertilize the soil while also stabilizing the tall corn during heavy winds. Beans are nitrogen-fixers meaning they host rhizobia on their roots that can take nitrogen, a much needed plant nutrient, from the air and convert it into forms that can be absorbed by plant roots. (Kruse-Peeples, 2016)

The squash, with its big leaves, is able to provide the ground with shade which helps the soil retain moisture and helps in the prevention of weeds.

The Three Sisters provided needed nutrients to the Indigenous populations who grew them. Maize provides amino acids and carbohydrates. Beans provide amino acids and dietary fiber along with vitamins and minerals such as, B6, B2, zinc, iron, magnesium, and potassium. While squash provides Vitamin A. (Hirst, 2019) Together, the Three Sisters provided a great deal of nutrition to compliment the nutrition acquired from hunting and gathering. However, upon colonization and prolonged contact the Three Sisters garden was replaced by the European model of monoculture.


Monoculture is the practice of growing a single crop or raising a single type of livestock in a field or farming system. European settlers directed their energy and land on cash crops such as tobacco in addition to livestock. “New European markets inspired European settlers to focus on monocultured cash crops, most notably tobacco and maize.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 137)

The expansion of monoculture, brought by European settlers, and prolonged contact with them, effected the ecology of the plants and animals that Indigenous peoples relied on. Indigenous peoples saw the ecology of tubers, grasses, and squash as well as the wild animals that roamed around them being affected by monoculture practices. This change in ecology was noted by Miantonomi, chief of the Narrangansett, in the summer of 1642. Maintonomi summarized the ways in which the European agricultural colonization had disrupted subsistence strategies already in place in a letter to the Montauk communities of Eastern Long Island.
For so are we all Indians, as the English now are, and say brother to one another; so we must be one as they are, otherwise we will be gone shortly, for you know our fathers had plenty of deer skins, our plains were full of deer, as also our woods, and of turkies, and our coves full of fish and fowl. But these English who have gotten our land, they with scythe cut down the grass, and with axes fell trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved. (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 152)

Food sources which were once biodiverse and plentiful were now scarce and being replaced with food with lower nutritional value.

Before colonization and prolonged contact Indigenous peoples enjoyed a high protein, low carbohydrate, vitamin rich diet making them healthy and strong. Because of their biodiverse methods of subsistence and the harmony between those methods Indigenous peoples were able to have healthy bodies and immune systems. “Native American subsistence strategies prevented the problematic health effects of agricultural intensification from becoming chronic. The continued synergy between hunting and gathering, horticulture and agriculture provided nutrient mixtures that we can now identify as vital for optimal immune function.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 110) This changed with the intensification of agriculture which meant the intensification of the consumption of dairy, grains, and foods high in carbohydrates.


Once the original inhabitants were dispossessed from the land (and put onto reservations or enslaved) that provided all the things they needed, they now became dependent upon their colonizers. The colonizers did not think of the health of those they colonized. Instead, Indigenous peoples, whose diets included various plants and wild life, were transformed into diets that consisted of highly processed, high in carbohydrates, salted, and sugared foods. These foods, because they were the only foods Indigenous people now had access to, were now what Indigenous peoples relied on.
Instead of eating hand-grown and harvested fruits, nuts, and vegetables, the lean meat of wild game, and fish loaded with essential fats, Indigenous Peoples instead consumed highly processed canned, salted, and sugared foods, canned fatty meats and high quantities of refined sugar, and bleached white flour. (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 69)

This food inequality and the lack of access to healthy foods has been detrimental to Indigenous people’s health.

Because Indigenous peoples were forced into a state of dependency colonial settlers saw an opening to forcefully assimilate Indigenous people’s diets to the standards of Western Europeans. They saw their ways as inherently superior and, thus, thrust them onto the original inhabitants of this land. As an effect of making Indigenous peoples eat their high carbohydrate, low nutrient diets, Indigenous peoples today have some of the shortest life spans and the highest rates of diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.
Europeans and Euro-Americans maintained their sense of superiority and forcefully imposed their ways, including their comparatively unhealthy diets, upon us [Indigenous Americans]. This has only served to deteriorate the health of our people [Indigenous Americans]. Now our people [Indigenous Americans] have some of the shortest life spans and the highest rates of diseases. Diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are killing our people [Indigenous Americans]. Our bodies [Indigenous bodies] clearly have not benefited from colonization. (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 68)

One example of this is the consumption of dairy, which in Native America was unheard of,
apart from children consuming breast milk.


Colonizers emphasize the consumption of dairy, in fact, the U.S. Food Pyramid suggests that in order to maintain a healthy diet one ought to consume at least two to three servings of dairy per day. However, around 65% of the adult population, worldwide, is lactose intolerant. GB Vogelsang M.D. (2019) states,
normal adults lose the ability to digest lactose. It is actually a genetic variant that allows adults to continue to produce lactase, the enzyme which breaks down lactose. If the lactose is not broken down, the typical symptoms of bloating, cramps, diarrhea, and gas occur.
As humans grow up and mature lactase levels, that were once high at birth and as children, decrease to very low levels making it challenging if not impossible for adults to effectively break down lactose.

Indigenous people are more susceptible to lactose intolerance than other populations. It is estimated that 75-80% of Indigenous Americans are lactose intolerant. Thus, being fed dairy products only serves to aggravate health problems.
The dairy products only served to exacerbate health problems as an extremely high percentage of Indigenous peoples are lactose intolerant. In fact adults in general are not built to consume dairy products. At birth humans have an enzyme called lactase that allows them to break down the lactose in human breast milk so that it can be absorbed and utilized by the body. As humans mature, lactase decreases to very low levels, making it difficult or impossible for adults to effectively break down lactose. […] Our bodies simply cannot efficiently process dairy products. (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 69)


Food injustice and oppression, is experienced when one is hungry and dependent on foods, such as dairy, to satiate that hunger. This is what happened to Indigenous peoples in North America. Their lands were stolen from them creating food injustice and inequality. This was the beginning of food inequality and food injustice in North America.


The reason colonizers believed they were justified in taking the land of the Indigenous peoples that had resided in North America for thousands of years was/is a false sense of superiority. When the Western European colonizers arrived in the Americas, they saw that the residence here looked, spoke, and worshiped differently than they did themselves. We can see the beginnings of white supremacy in North America by looking at the names colonizers use to refer to Indigenous peoples.

When colonizers arrived in the Americas rather than learning the names of Indigenous peoples, they began to name them themselves. In doing so, the names chosen for Indigenous people were disrespectful and degrading. They were given names that conveyed that they were inferior, vicious, enemies.

European invaders often called Indigenous people “Sioux”. This name was given to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people. Sioux comes from the Anishinaabe word for “enemy” or “snake”. In the Christian belief system, the snake is the character who tempted Eve to eat the apple. The snake is seen as an untrustworthy deceiver. For some Apache peoples they used the word “Tonto”. “Tonto” is a Spanish word that means stupid or silly. The Tsistsistas Nation was designated as “Cheyenne”, which is a French word for “talks funny.” (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 31-2) This clearly shows, that the colonizers did not see Indigenous people as equal to themselves. They certainly did/do not go around calling each other stupid, untrustworthy, or as funny talkers. The colonizers view of Indigenous people as inferior is clearly shown through the language they use when referring to the colonized.

When the thief, murderer, and slave trader Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas and came into contact with the Arawak of the Bahamas, he found that because of the Arawak’s generosity and peacefulness they were inferior to him and were to be subjugated. Columbus states,
They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Horgan, 2016)
Columbus decided that his colonial, capitalist, violent ways were superior to the generous and peaceful ways of the Indigenous populations. Because of this, he and his counterparts decided it was right to subjugate, enslave, steal from, and kill Indigenous people.

In the 1600’s we get a clear example of the dehumanization of Indigenous people. Colonizers not only saw themselves as superior to Indigenous people, they argued that Indigenous people were not people at all. Indigenous people were seen as less than human, as something disposable, a pest that needed to be removed. It was around this time that European colonizers introduced commercial bounty hunting in North America. They paid bounty hunters and mercenaries to kill Indigenous women, men, and children. Indigenous people were to be extinguished, no matter their age or sex. “They first paid fur trappers and other mercenaries for the heads and whole bodies of Native men, women, and children.” (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 33) When this became too arduous the payers of the bounties began to accept, “bloody red skins and scalps as proof of ‘Indian Kill.’” (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 33)

The United States government cemented the idea that Indigenous peoples were inferior in the Declaration of Independence. This contradictory document begins by saying, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence, 1775) Later in the document, Indigenous people are accused of being cruel, brutal, and without mercy. “He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.” (The Declaration of Independence, 1775) Here we see that inequality is ingrained in the United States government. It is also embedded in the Canadian government.

In 1876, upon the creation of the colonial state known as Canada, Indigenous people were infantilized and treated as if they were unable to run their own lives and be autonomous even though they had done so for thousands of years before colonization. It was at this time that the “Indian Act” was born. The “Indian Act” determined who possesses “Indian status,” which refers to the specific legal identity of Indigenous persons in Canada. Under the “Indian Act”, anyone who has “Indian status” is considered a ward of the state and considered to be childlike and in need of someone to “civilize” them. The Department of the Interior, in their 1876 Annual Report, states,
“Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State. …the true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.” (Department of the Interior, Annual Report, 1877, p. xiv)


In addition to the racism built into colonialism, which perpetuates food insecurity and food injustice, is sexism. Sexism, like racism, is inherently connected to colonialism. When colonizers arrived in the Americas, they brought with them Christianity and preconceived gender notions. Rather than an equal relationship where everyone has their roles, this balance was destroyed by the enforcement of patriarchy.

Before colonization women were revered and respected. They were considered the keepers of culture who tell the next generation the stories of those who came before. Women propel the family forward and keep them alive and well. In the Lakota tradition of the North American plains, the equal, though different, roles of men and women were taught to them by the holy person White Buffalo Calf Woman.

White Buffalo Calf Woman came during a time that the Lakota were struggling. They had forgotten how to live in harmony. White Buffalo Calf Woman came to them to help them restore harmony with each other and all things. Part of doing this was explaining the Lakota’s roles to them and how these roles are essential.

When explaining their roles, White Buffalo Calf Woman turned to the women and said:
My dear sisters, the women: You have a hard life in this world, yet without you this life would not be like it is. Wakantanka [the Creator, the Great Mystery] intends that you shall bear much sorrow—comfort others in times of sorrow. By your hands the family moves. You have been given the knowledge of making clothing and of feeding the family. Wakantanka is with you in your sorrows and joins you in your griefs. He has given you the great gift of kindness toward every living creature on earth. You he has chosen to have a feeling for the dead who are gone. He knows that you remember the dead longer than do men. He knows that you love your children dearly. (Alexander, 1953, p. 156)

She then turns to the men and says:
“Now my dear brothers: […] The tribe as a whole depend upon it [the Sacred Pipe] for their necessary needs. You realize that all your necessities of life come from the earth below, the sky above, and the four winds. Whenever you do anything wrong against these elements they will always take some revenge on you. You should reverence them. Offer sacrifices through this pipe. When you are in need of buffalo meat, smoke this pipe and ask for what you need and it shall be granted to you. On you it depends to be a strong help to the women in raising the children. Share the women’s sorrow. Wakantanka smiles on the man who has a kind feeling for woman …” (Alexander, 1953, p. 157)

Here White Buffalo Calf Woman is telling the men their roles to provide the tribe with the necessities of life, to pray for everyone, and to make sacrifices. They will hunt for the buffalo that will nourish the tribe and provide hides and bones for clothes and tools to provide for the community. It is through their prayer and sacrifices that they can assure that the necessities of life are provided. They are the protectors of women and must share their burden with them.

(It is important to note that though these roles are essential for men and women, they are not rigid.
Two-spirit people are regarded very highly and as sacred. There is no shame or taboo in a person who was born “male” to take on the characteristics and role of a “female” or vice versa.)

The Christian culture of the European colonizers contradicts this balance between the feminine and masculine and declared that men are superior to women. In the creation story of Christianity, nature is flipped on Her head. In reality, it is a simple truth that man is born of woman. Women bear both male and female children. Yet, in the Christian story this is not the case. In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam is created first and from his rib Eve is created. In this cosmological story, the power of creation is taken from woman and given to man. This serves to cement man’s supposed superiority over woman, for it is now man who is the creator of life.

Before prolonged contact with colonizers women were responsible for most of what Indigenous communities ate in New England. “[…] the gendered division of labor between hunting and gathering and agriculture in New England demonstrates that women became responsible for 90% of the precontact Native American Diet. (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 93) Women were cultivating the Three Sisters of maize, beans, and squash, but these were not the only plants they cultivated. Women also grew pumpkins, cucumbers, and artichokes among other crops. However, this was not the way of the European colonizers.

Gender Roles

European colonizer’s gender notions intruded upon the balance that Indigenous women and men had achieved. When the English saw women working out in the fields, they thought it was unwomanly and uncivilized. Thus, the English sought to discourage and sabotage this system. They even used this as a reason to steal more land.
Gendered English notions of domesticity further undermined the hybrid between agriculture and hunting and gathering in New England and Iroquois country. Where Native American Women worked in plant cultivation their physical labor was perceived by English settlers as uncivilized and discouraged or even sabotaged. English settlers replaced gendered physical spaces with new animals lots or wheat fields (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 154)

Colonizers brought with them their preconceived notions about gender roles. They forced their ideas of gender on the Indigenous populations they colonized, in effect creating and continually propagating sexism in the Americas. We can now see how sexism is deeply embedded in the colonization of the Americas.

Colonization as an Ongoing Process/System

It is important that we do not misinterpret colonization of the Americas as a single event with a distinct end, because this is not the case. Colonization is an ongoing system that includes continued oppression. Oppression is prolonged cruel and/or unjust treatment.It is important that we do not misinterpret colonization of the Americas as a single event with a distinct end, because this is not the case. Colonization is an ongoing system that includes continued oppression. Oppression is prolonged cruel and/or unjust treatment.

Some of the poorest counties in the United States are found on the Western Plains where the U.S. government has forced Indigenous people onto reservations. When Indigenous people were gathered and forced to live on reservations, they were mandated to use European farming methods on the unfertile land. However, the amount of useable farm land is not nearly large enough to support the entire population. In addition, the unemployment rates and household incomes are well below the federal poverty guidelines creating food deserts.

Food Deserts

Food deserts, as defined by the American Nutrition Association, “are parts of the country lacking in adequate supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods, usually in impoverished areas.” (Food Deserts, 2018) This does not only mean lack of access to grocery stores, but it also includes lack of access to food pantries and food sharing programs. Fig. 1 shows food deserts in green.

Fig. 2, Map of American Indian Reservations. (

Fig. 1 Fig. 2, Map of American Indian Reservations. (

Unemployment & Median Income on Reservations

The unemployment rates on reservations is much higher than the United States average unemployment rate. There are very few jobs on reservations and very few jobs nearby. This makes finding work on reservations extremely hard. On the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala, according to the 2005 Department of Interior report, there was an 89% unemployment rate. After 2005, “the Department of the Interior has since ceased producing estimates of “unemployment.” (Pine Ridge, 2020) In Navajo Nation, the unemployment rate is 44.25%. (Donovan, 2017) The Sokaogon Chippewa Community has an unemployment rate of 93%. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in California has an unemployment rate of 91%. The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe has an unemployment rate of 88%. (Schilling, 2013) The United States average unemployment rate is 5.74%, much lower than the unemployment rates on reservations.

In addition to high unemployment rates, the median income for people living on reservations is drastically lower than the median income for people living off reservations. The U.S. capita is $51,638. The Navajo reservation median income is $7,751. (Donovan, 2017) For the Oglala the median income is $7,773. (Pine Ridge, 2020) The Acoma Pueblo has a median income of $13,895. (Acoma Pueblo, 2018) It is easy to see that the median income for people living on reservations is drastically lower than that of people living off the reservation.

These sky-high unemployment rates and incredibly low incomes that help create food deserts are no accident. When someone is born on the reservation and grow up, they have a choice. They can either live in total poverty or they can move off reservation, leaving their traditions, spirituality, and families behind to assimilate. They are forced to assimilate or live in poverty.

Through the inspection of figure 1 and figure 2, it becomes clear that there is a definite overlap between reservations and food deserts. This means that Indigenous people are continually being denied access to the healthy food needed to live a healthy life and to experience their culture fully.

Food Consumption & Preparations as Culturally Significant

Food consumption and preparation are very culturally significant to Indigenous peoples. For them, food, culture, and health are interrelated and connected. Eating traditional cultural foods helps keep those who are part of that culture connected to nature and the land, to traditions, and to spirituality. When interviewed, Yukon First Nations people “indicated that eating cultural food supported basic cultural values including keeping people ‘in tune’ with nature, facilitating sharing, was a way for adults to display responsibility for their children, and to practice spirituality.” (Cidro, Adekunle, Peters, & Martens, 2015, p. 27)

The activities that are involved in the acquisition and distribution of food are connected to deep seeded values such as sharing and cooperation and the knowledge associated with cultivating food is deeply intertwined with the larger understanding of the people’s relationships to each other, the environment, and spirituality. “The knowledge and understanding associated with growing and nurturing your own food are connected to larger understandings of the relationship between the environment, spirituality, and people.” (Cidro et. al, 2015, p. 34)

For Indigenous people, food is not just something profane to simply consume, it is sacred. Harvesting and cultivation methods always contain an element of ceremony, in fact, in most instances, Indigenous people learn about the cultivation and hunting of traditional foods from their holy people. For instance, in the Navajo tradition, which heavily relied on deer meat and deer products for survival, were taught to hunt deer from the holy deer people themselves.
“When food harvesting, preparation and consumption contain an element of ceremony and spirituality, a different kind of intention becomes embodied. Careful consideration of technique, and appreciation for the broader connections between food, land and past and future generations become part of the connection to food.” (Cidro et. al., 2015, p. 34-5)
Without this sense of connection and tradition, Indigenous people are denied their culture and belief systems. Not only do they go hungry for lack of access to healthy foods and traditional foods, they also suffer spiritually.

Decolonizing Our Food System

In order to get to the root of these issues then, we must decolonize our food system. Because of the nature of colonization as an active process, decolonization cannot be passive. We must actively reflect upon the world and ourselves to transform it. This is what Brazilian liberatory educator Paulo Freire calls “praxis”. According to Freire, praxis is, “refection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 2) Through this reflection and action we are able to question the legitimacy of colonization and the roles it has each of us playing. The Tunisian decolonization activist Albert Memmi, wrote,
“In order for the colonizer to be the complete master, it is not enough for him to be so in actual fact, he must also believe in the legitimacy. In order for that legitimacy to be complete, it is not enough for the colonized to be a slave, he must also accept his role.” (Wilson & Yellow Bird, 2005, p. 2)

We must wake up to the injustice of the colonial system so we can find ways to challenge and resist colonial ideologies and institutions. Decolonization is reflective and intelligent.
Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird (2005) define decolonization as,
the intelligent, calculated, and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands, and it is engaged for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation. (p. 5)
This means, in the context of food injustice, to decolonize our food system we must actively overturn the colonial food system now in place. Only when we are able to do so will we be able to obtain long term food justice and food security.

Shared Values of a Decolonized Food System

The decolonization of the colonial food system will look different in different regions throughout North America. There are, however, some basic shared values that will be found throughout different regions.

Such values will include, but certainly not limited to, a return to sustainable biodiverse farming practices which allow for natural cycles. In fact, many farmers are already calling for a return to biodiverse farming practices.
“Farmers and activists inside and outside Native America are renewing the call for biodiverse farming practices, which allow a natural cycle where pasture-raised roaming animals convert grass into nutrient-dense meat, while also fertilizing the soil and providing context for other plants and crops to grow, and other smaller animals to reproduce.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 213)
When farming practices adhere to more the natural cycle of things it becomes more sustainable.

A decolonized food system must also ensure that those most affected by food insecurity and food injustice, those who are most marginalized and disempowered, are part of the decision-making process when deciding on the solutions. As Olivier De Schutter, the previous FAO Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food argues, “we must ensure that the weakest, the most disempowered and marginalized take part in shaping the answers, in identifying solutions.” (Slocum & Cadieux, 2015, p. 39) In fact, it is these marginalized and disempowered communities who often know exactly what is required. This means our decolonized food system must be participatory and inclusive.

Decolonizing our food system does not mean romanticizing the past, nor does it mean that we want to return to the past or a pre-modern lifestyle. It is about using the knowledge we have gained from the past and the knowledge we are currently gaining in order to incorporate better practices and live healthier lives.
“Decolonizing the Diet in this way need not reflect a romanticized attempt to return to a premodern lifestyle. Rather it incorporates what we now realize are better practices in ecological science which in turn supply diverse micronutrients and reduce reliance on nutrient-poor and energy-dense foods, which have contributed to metabolic syndromes in and out of Native America during the last half century.” (Mailer & Hale, 2018, p. 217)


In North America food insecurity and inequality is inseparably intertwined with colonization. With the colonization of the Americas came the introduction of food injustice and food insecurity. During colonization, historically and in present day, food is used as a weapon of oppression. Colonizers use dispossession, dependency, and oppression to gain and maintain power over the colonized. These methods were used in the Americas to steal land from Indigenous people, taking away that which provided everything they needed, making them dependent, and cruelly denying them access to the land and food they once enjoyed. Therefore, if we want to achieve long lasting food justice and food equality in North America, food injustice and inequality must be understood in the context of colonization. This means that the food justice movement must focus on decolonizing the food system in order to have long lasting food justice and equality.

Alexander, Hartley Burr. (1953). The World’s Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American
Indians. University of Nebraska Press.

Alkan, Allison Hope. (2014). Food Justice and the Challenge to Neoliberalism. Gastronomica,
14(2), 27-40.

Biel, Robert. (2016). Food, Imperialism, and Dependency. Sustainable Food Systems the
Role of the City, 74-89.

Canadian Department of the Interior, Annual Report for the year ended 30th June, 1876 (1876).
Parliament, Sessional Papers, No. 11, 1877, p. xiv.

Census Reporter. (2018). Acoma Pueblo. Retrieved from

Cidro, J., Adekunle, B., Peters, E., & Martens, T. (2015). Beyond Food Security: Understanding
Access to Cultural Food for Urban Indigenous People in Winnipeg as Indigenous Food
Sovereignty. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 24(1), 24-43.

Donovan, Bill. (2017, June 27). Nation’s economy lags behind U.S., new book says. Retrieved

Herman, Agatha & Goodman, Mike. (2018). New Spaces of Food Justice. Local Environment
23:11, 1041-1046.

Hirst, K. Kris. (2019, May 30). The Three Sisters: the traditional intercropping agricultural
method. Retrieved from

Horgan, John. (2016, November 21). Thanksgiving and the Myth of Native American “Savages”:
Prominent scientist exaggerate the violence of Native Americans, whom European
invaders ravaged. Retrieved from

Kepkiewicz, Lauren, Chrobok, Michael, Whetung, Madeline, Cahuas, Madelaine, Gill, Jina,
Walker, Sam & Wakefield, Sarah. (2015). Beyond Inclusion: Toward an Anti-Colonial
5(4), 99-104.

Kruse-Peeples, Melissa. (2016, May 27). How to grow a Three Sisters garden. Retrieved from

Mailer, Gideon A & Hale, Nicola E. (2018). Decolonizing the Diet: Nutrition, Immunity and
The Warning from Early America. Anthem Press.

McFarlane, Peter & Schabus, Nicole. (Ed.) (2017). Whose Land is It Anyway: A Manual for
Decolonization. Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C.

Mihesuah, D. (2003). Decolonizing Our Diets by Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens. American
Indian Quarterly, 27, (3/4), 807-839.

Re-member. (2020). Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Retrieved from

Rotz, Sara. (2017). They Took Our Beads, It was Fair Trade, Get Over It: Settler Colonial
Logics, Racial Hierarchies and Material Dominance in Canadian Culture. GeoForum,
82, 158-169.

Schilling, Vincent. (2013, August 29). Terrible statistics: 15 Native tribes with unemployment
rates over 80%. Retrieved from

Slocum, Rachel & Cadieux, Kirsten Valentine. (2015). Notes on the Practice of Food Justice in
the U.S.: Understanding and Confronting Trauma and Inequality. Journal of Political
Ecology, 22, 27-52.

Tulane University School of Social Work. (2018, May 10). Food Deserts in America:
Infographic. Retrieved from

U.S. Declaration of Independence. (1775). Retrieved from

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge Complex. (2014).
Retrieved from

Volgelsang, G.B. (2019). Lactose Intolerance: A Common GI Complaint. Retrieved from

Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela & Yellow Bird, Micheal, (Ed.). (2005). For Indigenous Eyes
Only: A Decolonization Handbook. School of American Research Press.

Figure 1: Map of Food Deserts in the U.S. Retrieved from
Figure 2: Map of Native American Reservations in the U.S. Retrieved from

Published by shanarchist

I am a Philosopher, writer, mindfulness & meditation teacher, & artist.

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