Interview: A-dae Romero-Briones of the First Nations Development Institute

Courtesy of First Nations Development Institute

It's hard to overstate the impact the First Nations Development Institute has had on Native American communities in the three and a half decades since its founding. In addition to providing supportive services, First Nations has directed more than $27 million to Native American projects and organizations. As part of its expansive mission, First Nations focuses on preserving native foodways and improving the health of indigenous communities.

As the Associate Director of Research and Policy for Native Agriculture at First Nations, A-dae Romero-Briones has a unique vantage point from which to speak about the intersection of food sovereignty, environmental justice and indigenous rights. We're so excited to have spoken with her about these issues, biodiversity, the spirituality of food and more. We hope you are as inspired by her words as we are! 

Please tell us about your work and, more broadly, the work of the First Nations Development Institute, especially when it comes to food sovereignty.

Our mission is to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy Native communities. We invest in and create innovative institutions and models that strengthen asset control and support economic development for American Indian people and their communities.

With the support of individuals, foundations, corporate and tribal donors, First Nations Development Institute improves economic conditions for Native Americans through technical assistance and training, advocacy and policy, and direct financial grants.

All food grown by the Nambé Community Gardens is given freely to the tribal community, including to after-school programs, instilling an appreciation for the sacredness of food and improving the health of the entire Pueblo.

Under our Nourishing Native Foods and Health program area, we initiated the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative. Since 2002, First Nations has awarded 263 grants totaling more than $6.5 million to Native organizations dedicated to increasing food access and improving the health and nutrition of Native children and families. The Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative grants are intended to help tribes and Native communities build sustainable food systems such as community gardens, food banks, food pantries and/or other agricultural projects related to Native food-systems control.

There are so many amazing projects and organizations that the First Nations Development Institute helps bring to fruition. Could you please highlight some of these projects and organizations that most inspire you?

We are privileged to be working in so many American Indian communities at any given time. We have projects in every region in Indian Country. Some of the more in-depth projects include the food system initiative being led by Thunder Valley Development Corporation, which focused on an integrated food system that looks not only at local sourcing of food, but creating the systematic infrastructure needed to support production and community self-reliance.

They have looked at their history from federal policy influences to exploring what a democratic food system looks like. Another inspiring project is the Keres Children's Learning Center, the first Montessori Heritage Language Immersion Schools in this country. They are not only immersing children in their heritage language, Keres, but incorporating the tenants of the Pueblo food system into the education curriculum not unlike the very education of our grandparents, who learned much of what they know in the fields and gardens that fed the community. It's a very profound approach: to incorporate community lifeways into an education system and they are doing it largely through lessons about food.

How do you define food sovereignty and why is it important to indigenous communities?

I take the definition from professor Devon G. Peña, Professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, who defines Tribal Food Sovereignty as the unity among food, diet, land, water, people and knowledge systems of an Indigenous Nation. Historically, there have been major disruptions into the variables of the Tribal Food Sovereignty equation, whether that is through Federal policy that diminished our land bases and defined our diets, or through systemic language loss that diminished our knowledge bases.

Food is how we communicate with our external environment. When you separate food from our environment, we lose a critical lifeline to our environment, and we can't gauge environmental health without it.

How are food sovereignty issues and environmental justice issues interrelated?

Going back to our definition of Tribal Food Sovereignty, food, people and the environment are synergistic. Separating our food from the environment, or food from people, or the environment from people encourages a lopsided view of the world and forges lopsided solutions.

The separation of food from the environment is perhaps one of the greatest travesties our generation. When we see the environment (and the issues that are now called environmental issues) outside of "us," we run into major "environmental issues." In fact, we are the environment, and the environment is us, and our umbilical cord or communication cord is food. Food is how we communicate with our external environment. When you separate food from our environment, we lose a critical lifeline to our environment, and we can't gauge environmental health without it.

We're constantly thinking about a more just and sustainable food system. When you envision a better food system, what does it look like and what are its values?

Many Indigenous peoples are very fortunate at this point in time to know what a just and sustainable food system looks like. We are still connected to generations of people in our communities: grandparents that participated in communities that weren't inundated by mainstream food marketing. My grandparents grew up in a time when my village didn't have a road, so community self-reliance was a given. With each elder we lose, our connection to that sustainable food system is in jeopardy.

So what did that look like? That just and sustainable food system looks like a community that has full community participation by individuals in some part of the food system rather than simply end users. When you have full participation of the community in the food system, communities tend to get really good at producing in their locality. When they get good at producing in their locality, they can share those products with other communities. When every individual has a place in the food system - call it farmer, call it producer, call it processor or corn husker - you have people with a stake in what happens to the food, the system that creates it and a strong gauge when something goes wrong or when an individual needs help within that system. For example, there were people within my own community who could not participate in the food system for physical reasons like old age, but we knew who those people were and could accommodate them by giving them excess from multiple families. When full participation is not expected or encouraged, those who are hungry get lost in the mix.

The conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) could be viewed as an interesting case study in how environmental justice interacts with indigenous rights and food sovereignty. Do you think so? If so, are there any lessons along these lines that we can learn?

DAPL was an incredible step forward in the unification of Indigenous people for a common cause.

Yes, DAPL is an extremely interesting case study, but I must say it is not a new event. Environmental injustices are common place in Indian Country and Indigenous communities worldwide, but the DAPL case is unique in that it brought environmental injustice into the forefront of the national and global consciousness. The DAPL organizers and leaders were able to mobilize and partner with Native and non-Native groups and use social media to tell their story to the world - that is an incredible feat. Many Native communities are isolated, purposefully. We are separated from each other and often pitted against one another by design for resources. DAPL was an incredible step forward in the unification of Indigenous people for a common cause. I imagine if we can only harness that momentum and get better at mobilizing as an Indigenous population by practice, we would be our best resource.

Are there other conflicts similar to DAPL to which you'd like to draw our readers' attention?

Absolutely. The Gila River have been resisting the construction of a freeway through their lands for years. The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California has been resisting, again, a freeway through some of their sacred burial sites. Almost every Army Corps of Engineers dam built in this country was built on Indian land, reservation land and most likely has a story of heartache of those lands in which that dam was built. We have the fight over Bear Ears National Monument. We have the Chaco Canyon conflict. I could go on and on.

For those interested in taking action to help in these efforts, what advice would you give?

Listen. Let Indigenous people tell their own stories and find ways to help Indigenous people tell their stories to the world however you can do that. And look for organizations that have Indigenous people telling their own story and partner with them.

Oneida Nation heirloom white corn taken during the inaugural Food Sovereignty Summit on the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin reservation.

There is an interesting interaction between the movement to protect indigenous foodways and the movement to protect heirloom seeds and biodiversity. Is biodiversity important to you and if so, why? 

It's absolutely paramount.

It's funny that biodiversity is a word now, when in older generations biodiversity was the norm. It was the way of the world to be biodiverse. The issues that arise when losing biodiversity mirror the same issues that happen when a language dies. It's no coincidence that we are losing biodiversity in our globe at the same alarming rate we are losing Indigenous languages. Again, our environment and people are synergistic. It's like two old friends who stop talking to each other; they begin to forget details about the other. In the case of Indigenous people, we are losing language, and in the case of the world, we are losing biodiversity. In both cases, we lose an entire set of lifeways that guide use through existence. When we lose those lifeways, we lose part of our ability to learn and experience. If I can explain it visually, we are beautiful bright stars that are slowly becoming dangerous black holes with each word loss or species loss, and we can't at this moment determine the consequences of that loss.

Do you think there is a connection between the food sovereignty of indigenous communities and spirituality? Could you explain it?

When we eat, we are communicating with our world and the people around us and are giving signals about our presence to both. I can't think of anything more spiritual than that.

Absolutely. In simplistic terms:

Good Health = Healthy Economic Institutions plus Healthy Political Institutions plus a Healthy Food System plus Healthy Spiritual Institutions

When any one of those variables changes, the entire equation changes. More specifically, food is the communication line between humans and the environment. Spirituality is focused on the deepest meaning and values which one lives with. It is concerned with things that are beyond our observable and physical world. The beauty of food is that it brings the spiritual parts of our lives, the communication with our environment - or further - the responsibility to care for our environment into a physical manifestation. When we eat, we are communicating with our world and the people around us and are giving signals about our presence to both. I can't think of anything more spiritual than that.

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Photos courtesy of First Nations Development Institute.

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