The Importance of Native Food Systems During COVID and Beyond

by Guest

Published: 10/02/20, Last updated: 10/13/20

By A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa), Director of Programs, Native Agriculture & Food Systems, First Nations Development Institute.

In times of environmental transition and unrest, a return to and revitalization of Native food systems is both necessary and beautiful. In the words of an elder basket maker who lives in the central valleys of California, “The land is calling us to watch the dance.” And now, as questions about the origin, health and sustainability of the food we eat increase – and the demand for strength and recovery as a result of COVID-19 continues – more and more people are hearing that call, and not only watching the dance, but participating.

A Return to Native Roots 

For Native people who lived for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, food systems were weaved into every aspect of our lives, the indicator for environmental health encoded in nutrient nourishment. It is through food that we spoke with our lands and all they carried. Food was more than sustenance, it was also part of community, ceremonies, economies, and relationships. Food was core to our stories and the education of our young people, and an integral component of their long-term heath, well-being, and happiness.

This central role of food for nourishment and sustainability of lifeways has not gone away, despite the arrival of European settlers, the decimation of Native lands, the mass genocide, and decades of trauma imposed on Native populations. Indigenous rights to water, protections for significant ecological and cultural hotspots, Indigenous stewardship practices, management of fish and animals, and continued access to our own homelands have all been marginalized in the past. But they are finally becoming centered in conversations as communities, locally and nationally, consider how to respond to current circumstances. Native food systems live on and continue to nourish and feed communities and perpetuate the culture and traditions behind them.

The Native food movement looks different across the lands. For the Iguigig Village on the Kvichak River in southwestern Alaska, it means promoting education about cooking and preserving Native foods, including wild plants, caribou and salmon, and embracing the way their people have always lived. For the people of Pine Ridge Reservation in Porcupine, South Dakota, it means creating a scalable and viable food system to increase food access, educate youth, and honor culture as part of an initiative to heal and build community through artisanal meat processing with Makoce Agriculture Development. It means restoring a cultural connection to food and recognizing that, at one time, food was and is connection.

This revitalization of and investment in Native food systems improves lives and promotes self-reliance and sound environmental and food policies. When grocery stores are closed, quantities are limited, and the supply chain is threatened, a return to Native foods can be the difference between sickness and heath. And a recognition and celebration of Native foodways can be a factor in how people find nutrition and nourishment in a COVID-19 world. The land calling us to watch the dance is a reminder that we are all active participants in the societal, cultural, and environmental transition and unrest that have become a reality for most of our country.

How First Nations Development Institute Supports Nourishing Native Foods & Health

The strengthening of Native food systems is key to the work of First Nations Development Institute, which has been centering and supporting Indigenous control of community, financial, environmental, and physical assets since its founding in 1980. An Indigenous-run organization, First Nations began its national grantmaking program in 1993 and had awarded over 1,900 grants to Indian Country totally more than $40 million. Through its Nourishing Native Foods & Health program alone, First Nations has awarded over $9 million to support efforts to regain control of Native food systems.

The organization has been honored to listen to and support many Indigenous projects that offer so many lessons in everything from community development, to traditional stewardship, to Native food sovereignty. Among them: The White Mountain Apache Tribe, which is increasing the scope of its Ndée Bikíyaa (The Peoples’ Farm) with a series of workshops focused on agribusiness education and skill-building. Through this education and training, participants are acquiring skills to strengthen their identity as farmers and stewards of the land and water and catalysts of local traditional food economies. Another: The Blackfeet Tribe, which is conducting an economic and technical feasibility study to examine the benefits and challenges of constructing a multi-species meat processing plant. The plant will reconnect the community to traditional cultural foods by restoring commercial and wild bison herds, and will improve economic opportunities for producers and communities through value-added agriculture and nature-based businesses.


New Movie Celebrates Beauty and Tenacity of Indigenous Foodways

First Nations works to shed light on the ingenuity of Native people and the effective and sustainable efforts underway in communities like White Mountain Apache and the Blackfeet Tribe to restore Native ways. Many examples of that ingenuity are captured in the new feature-length documentary called “Gather.”

“Gather “is a result of a three-year partnership between First Nations and Illumine Film Director Sanjay Rawal. The film focuses on three of the many Indigenous food stories unfolding in Indian Country. Filmed and completed just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Gather” explores the histories that have affected American Indian communities in different parts of the country. More important, “Gather” highlights the beauty and tenacity of Indigenous communities that remain committed and connected to their ancestral foodways. It is in these foodways that provide solace, answers, and roots that keep Native communities grounded in times of great change and adversity. “Gather” is a celebration of Native ancestors and current gatherers, farmers, hunters, and fishers who have maintained connections to Native lands despite the barriers and forces that have tried to pull those practices apart.

Native Cultures, Traditions and Knowledge Live On

The stories featured in “Gather” and the proven and effective outcomes of First Nations’ grantees nationwide are a sign of transformation. Each community and food system are a testament that Native cultures, traditions and knowledge live on, and from this people can celebrate food and find strength, even during and beyond challenging times of COVID-19 and other crises.

As food consumers, people have an opportunity to better understand and appreciate the role of food in our health and livelihoods.


Top photo courtesy of Gather Film by Illumine Films and First Nations Development Institute.

Learn More


  • Get more information about Native food sovereignty and the Native food movement at
  • Watch “Gather”. This film is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo-on-Demand. First Nations also has a limited number of copies available on DVD through this Gather Viewer Request Form.
  • Recognize and uplift Native food systems. Everything is connected, and everyone plays a role in the future and well-being of communities. Be an advocate for Native communities, real food systems, and health.
  • As efforts continue worldwide through COVID-19 response and recovery, a connection with the food we eat is more important now than ever. Now is the time to listen to the call of the land. Celebrate the food you bring home to your families. Watch the dance and join in.

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