• Jenny Hill

Keynote Examines Crucial Issue of Food Sovereignty

Happy Dancing Turtle recently interviewed food sovereignty advocate and Minnesota author Diane Wilson who will deliver the virtual keynote to kick off the 16th Annual Back to Basics at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 22. The keynote can be viewed for free live via Happy Dancing Turtle’s Facebook page. Participants who register for the virtual portion of Back to Basics will receive a Zoom link for the keynote live and will have access to a recording of it after January 24. Get more information here.

Food sovereignty advocate and author Diane Wilson (Dakota) wants us to know that the local food movement is actually a very old idea. “Two-hundred years ago, half of Minnesota was tall grass prairie,” Wilson said in a recent interview. “So the foods that the Dakota ate–how did they do it? They hunted. They gathered wild plants. They cultivated corn, squash and beans. And somehow—I have no idea how—they survived our winters based on food they grew or gathered. That is so far beyond my comprehension. That was a local food system right there. People have no idea how many foods we eat today were actually developed by Native gardeners.”

"And somehow—I have no idea how—they survived our winters based on food they grew or gathered."


But what happened in history to that local food system? Settlers plowed under the prairie.

“So then you destroy one of the biggest ecosystems in the country. You displace all those species, you displace human beings,” Wilson said. “You put tribes on reservations and give them commodity foods.” As history shows, within a couple of generations the result is the rise of lifestyle diseases, like Type II Diabetes.

And that has grown into epidemic levels of Type II Diabetes–not just for Native people, but for the entire country. “But that’s a symptom,” Wilson said. “What I see as the cause is what happened with that displacement onto reservations. You take away a people’s ability to provide their own foods, their traditional food systems. This is what I mean when I say food work has such an impact on our culture, on who we are, our health and well-being, our worldview.”

Wilson eloquently describes her worldview, steeped in the traditions and history of the Dakota: “We are all related—I mean that literally. We are all related to plants, animals, each other, air, soil, water, everything in this world is another being. Those beings are all our relatives.


"We are all related—I mean that literally."

Photo by Sarah Whiting

“As our relatives, that means we have a responsibility to take care of them. So there is a reciprocity here with, let’s just say the plant world—where so much of our food comes from. And the plant world takes care of us. When we relate to them as a relative, we take care of them. We make sure that the soil is nurtured. That they have enough water. You save those seeds in appropriate ways. The relationship is built on that mutual caring for each other.”

Wilson contrasts that with a worldview that came in with settlers that is rooted in seeing everything around us—plants, animals, land water—as a commodity. “There is a for-profit mindset that can rationalize just about anything you can do to any of those beings for the sake of making more money. And that’s when we see all of the harms that have resulted from that worldview. Which is, to me, one of the foundations for the climate change crisis that we are in right now.”

What is food sovereignty?

Wilson is the past executive director of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance—a national organization whose mission is to help tribes support sovereign food systems. What does that work look like? Wilson found that it was most effective to provide support to each community to figure out its own food system.

“Every tribe is connected to a specific place and the food systems come out of that relationship to place. So if you support the process, then that allows each community to recover that relationship and those skills that they need to rebuild their own sovereign food systems.”

Wilson describes the loss of sovereign food systems as another perspective of assimilation. “If you come in through the food system it’s kind of insidious,” Wilson said. “People are more conscious of things like boarding schools, which have gotten media attention. You can see how the food system has been used to dismantle Native culture.”

Wilson clarifies that food sovereignty doesn’t mean “we are going back to being hunters and gatherers. Food sovereignty means any community will have the ability to provide foods that are culturally appropriate. And provide them in a way that is within the control of the community.”

Connectedness to seeds and to each other

Wilson’s latest book, The Seed Keeper, is a novel that tells the story of the Dakota people in Minnesota in which corn, and the seeds for corn, play a pivotal role. In the novel, the controversy around GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds creates hard choices for the characters. Wilson finds discussions about GMO seeds often get bogged down in the details of the science. “Really the discussion to me is about that relationship. How did that discussion shift when seeds were allowed to become genetically modified. What impact does that have for us as human beings? What impact does that have for seeds?”

Wilson believes you can extrapolate from that story, from that example, into everything else. The way animals are allowed to be raised in factory conditions. That our water has become both scarce and polluted. “And everything else,” Wilson said. “That relationship, again you come back to that, is the foundation. This is the most critical issue: understanding the worldview, the interconnectedness.”

Working together

Although the heart of food sovereignty may be each community finding their own path, that doesn’t mean no help is needed. “[First] you assume expertise on behalf of each Native community and then it comes from a place of questioning: What can we do? How can we help support you?” Wilson said. “And so it’s almost like another worldview shift.”

Wilson describes what she has often seen in the relationships between Native and non-Native communities. “It is either the reluctance to consult with Native communities or that assumption of expertise that comes with believing you are the dominant culture.”

She feels this is work for all of us. “If you’re trying to look at an issue through the equity lens, the social justice framework, you have to understand about that worldview, how this has impacted Indigenous communities in terms of the work that is happening today. And then to really look at areas we have in common. This is work we really need to be doing together, all of us. This is a global issue.”

Learn more about Diane Wilson and her work at her website, dianewilsonwords.com.