Archive for the ‘Native Abundance’ Category


“We Belong”: The Vancouver Native Health Society’s Story of Reconnection

By Katie Redmiles

Addiction, obesity, factory farming, added hormones, artificial flavoring, diabetes, and cancer: all negative effects of the way today’s society views and operates with food. Food has become something to be consumed fast and in large quantities, to satisfy an appetite rather than a hunger in many cases. Prices of food, with healthier options of organically grown produce on the expensive end and fast, unhealthy options such as McDonalds on the cheap side, cause many communities to suffer from major health issues. The East Vancouver area, with a high population of Indigenous people, is one such community whose high rates of poverty has led to high rates of food insecurity, with less accessibility to options beneficial to the body.

The Indigenous community residing in the East Vancouver area suffered greatly from being separated from their lands during colonization. These lands provided healthy food practices and allowed for Indigenous knowledge to be passed down through the generations.

What happens when a community is disconnected not only from its food but its traditional food systems? The disparity between a community and the nourishment it receives from its traditional foods is increased when their traditional way of obtaining, preparing, and connecting to the food has disappeared. After colonization occurred, a dominant European culture spread throughout the territories adding to the disappearance of Indigenous food systems. Today, the East Vancouver Aboriginal community experiences severe poverty with high rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other food related diseases.

The Vancouver Native Health Society is combating such adversities by helping East Vancouver’s Indigenous community to return to its traditional food systems, a process synonymous with its Indigenous values of healing the body and the self. The Aboriginal community in Vancouver, primarily comprised of Coast Salish territory with First Nation bands such as the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh, greatly values the healing power that exists from the sacredness of food, which provides energy and nourishment to the body and spiritual self.

Combining two great powers of nature – food and native lands, untouched by urbanization – VNHS’s Tu’wusht Garden/Kitchen Project has been working to lower the devastating number of serious diseases rampant in the community since 2005. The project teaches traditional healthy food practices while strengthening bonds between families, individuals, youth, elders, and adults across the First Nations East Vancouver community. The project uses the phrase “We Belong” on its emblem, reaffirming that the project will ultimately restore a sense of belonging for a community struggling to maintain its culture.

The Tu’wusht Garden/Kitchen Project includes harvesting food (fishing, hunting), cooking, and feeding up to 2,100 community members throughout the year. The project conducts weekly kitchens where healthy, culturally sensitive foods are prepared and served, and workshops are held for sharing the healthy practices and food knowledge derived from the Indigenous traditions.

The harvesting and hunting trips are supported by a grant from First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund. In the 2013-2014 harvesting year, the project conducted two trips to adjoining Indigenous territories with about 30 community participants, and one hunting trip with eight participants. During these trips they harvested chum salmon in Cheam, Sockeye Salmon from the Musqueam territory, and tipi poles on the Bridge River First Nations Reservation, in British Columbia, Canada.

Harvesting Salmon

During the fall of 2013, VNHS led six community participants to Cheam, a valley in British Columbia located under a mountain known as “Cheam Peak”, or “Lhílheqey” in the indigenous language. In Cheam, they harvested 100 salmon and smoked half of their harvest during their stay. The other half was smoked during two sessions back at the University of British Columbia (UBC) farm, where the project’s activities are usually held. The process of catching and smoking the salmon are vital activities that demonstrate natural and healthy ways of procuring food as taught by the traditions of East Vancouver’s Aboriginal community.

Then, at the end of the harvesting year and beginning of summer, the project led another harvesting trip closer to home in the Musqueam territory where the UBC farm is located. There, 100 Sockeye Salmon were purchased, prepared, and served as the year went on.

The fish being prepared and smoked using Indigenous techniques. Courtesy of

The fish being prepared and smoked using Indigenous techniques. Courtesy of


Tipi Pole Harvesting

VNHS also led a third, and unexpected, harvesting trip to gather tipi poles on the Bridge River First Nations Reservation. The experience was especially rewarding because it gave a chance for children, youth, and elders to camp and immerse themselves in the rich land of the Bridge River First Nation band.

The campsite was surrounded by the beautiful natural landscape of the territory and the journey was led by two of the band’s elders through a nearby mountain, part of the Band’s ancestral lands. This experience allowed for exchanges between elders and youth, sharing in knowledge of the earth which surrounds them, deepening the connection to their culture that has been compromised because of colonization and urbanization. They came away from this trip with 10 new tipi poles to be used for the Tipi, a traditional tent, used for workshops, feasts, and other traditional activities – a safe space for community gatherings.

The festivities of preparing and sharing in the food harvested with the traditional tipi in the forefront. Courtesy of

The festivities of preparing and sharing in the food harvested with the traditional tipi in the forefront. Courtesy of

Harvest Feasts

The project also hosts two feasts each year commemorating the start and end of harvest. All of the Tu’wusht activities take place on the Musqueam territory. The Musquem tradition is also greatly rooted in the vision of “One Heart One Mind” which strives for the unification of a strong community based on the cultural values and ideas.

Each time the Tu’wusht project gathers on the land, they give thanks to the Musqueam people and ancestors for the honor of being on their beautiful land and use of natural resources. The recognition given to the Musqueam and to the Indigenous people participating in the activities is key to keeping the connection strong between the Indigenous community of East Vancouver and the land they were separated from.

Volunteers cut and prepare the fish to be cooked. Courtesy of

Volunteers cut and prepare the fish to be cooked. Courtesy of

The VNHS, through the Tu’wusht project, is now able to feed and teach the community healthily and in accordance with their traditional culture. Where it once saw the insurmountable health problems of increasing numbers of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, they now realize the knowledge and traditions of their own culture are the best solution. Prevention is always stressed as the best option to combat serious issues, and the Tu’wusht project has been working for a decade toward the goal of preventing the health adversities faced by so many in the community.

A major cornerstone of the VNHS’s mission is their use of the medicine wheel. The medicine wheel is a way of approaching healing of the body and mind by acknowledging a person is made up of a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual self. The Tu’wusht project is remarkable in its ability to heal each component of the self represented on the medicine wheel. Through the healthy feeding of their community the physical self is healed. By learning and participating with the whole community as well as close loved ones, the emotional state of their people improves. By giving a sense of belonging and community, as well as hope for the state of their health, the peoples’ mental selves are comforted. When they take excursions to Indigenous territories, the spirit resonating in themselves is reacquainted with the spirituality that is present in the land. The VNHS uses the Tu’wusht project activities to help bring balance to individuals and to the community as a whole.

The emblem used for the project, courtesy of Tu’wusht Project twitter

The emblem used for the project, courtesy of Tu’wusht Project twitter


VNHS grant application to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2013
VNHS grant report for Tu’wusht Garden/Kitchen project, 2014
VNHS grant application to the Keepers of the Earth Fund, 2014


First Foods Redux: Native American Food Companies Promote Tradition and Innovation

This post originally appeared on Civil Eats on November 24, 2014

By Adrien Schless-Meier

Native American tribes have long shaped the food landscape in this country and many continue to be some of the most vocal advocates for sustainable food production and policies to promote better health for future generations. Below are three tribal nations working to preserve the land while building strong food businesses.

The First Local Food Movement

Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room. Courtesy of Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation [Photo Credit: Civil Eats]

Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room. Courtesy of Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation [Photo Credit: Civil Eats]

Much has changed since the ancestors of the modern day Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation first started growing food in Northern California’s Capay Valley. But one thing remains the same: The area is home to some of the best agricultural land in the world.

Organic and small-scale farming have flourished in the valley along with the local food movement—there’s even a Capay Valley Grown label for food grown in the region. For their part, the Yocha Dehe tribe still cultivates over 1,300 acres of farmland in the valley, about 250 of which are certified organic. An additional 1,200 acres of the tribe’s land holdings are in permanent conservation easements and the Yocha Dehe practice an array of sustainable farming techniques from crop rotation to drip irrigation, cover crops to integrated pest management.

But, unlike some of their neighbors, the Yocha Dehe’s history on the land is complicated. Even though members of the tribe were among the earliest growers of “local foods” in California, the Yocha Dehe have had to buy back parcels of their ancestral land in small increments, using profits from their Cache Creek Casino and Resort and the Yocha Dehe Golf Club.

Many Native American communities have a similar story. Legacies of violence and displacement have left tribes across the U.S. disconnected from the lands they once called home. This type of alienation from ancestral lands–and from farming–has contributed to significant problems: Native Americans have a higher rate of obesity and food insecurity than any other racial category in the U.S.

In spite of these challenges, tribes are promoting greater economic stability among their members and tackling health problems head on, both by preserving tribal food traditions of the past and developing innovative new ways to sustain land and community.

An Olive Tree Grows in California

In 2011, the Yocha Dehe people had the opportunity to buy an 82-acre parcel that wasn’t optimal for growing specialty crops like squash or berries. The Tribal Council opted to plant olives instead, as the trees can thrive on less than stellar land and aren’t nearly as water intensive as the almonds or wine grapes that are also popular in the region.

“Our ancestors taught us that if we take care of the land, it will take care of us. A focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility is at the heart what we do,” says James Kinter, Tribal Secretary of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. “So, we have carefully considered the kinds of plants and crops that work best with our soil, climate and water supply challenges.”

The climate and soil in the valley are often described as Mediterranean for which olives are well suited. “Because they fit well, they can help us protect and sustain our land for future generations,” says Kinter.

The now 102-acre olive grove supplies the tribe’s hallmark Séka Hills olive oil, which bears the Patwin name for “the blue hills of our homeland.” Those hills are covered with trellises bursting with small, fruity arbequina olive trees.

In order to get the most out of their groves, the Yocha Dehe practice a modern technique called super high-density planting, which Spanish olive growers brought to the region in the 1990s. Whereas traditional olive orchards may have approximately 100 trees per acre, the tribe’s orchards boast up to 700 trees in the same amount of space.

Initially, the tribe aimed to sell to the larger bulk olive oil market, but then realized that they would have to send their olives over 100 miles to the nearest mill for processing. Rather than rely on the distant mill, the Yocha Dehe worked with an Italian manufacturer to build a mill that could handle the tribe’s modest but substantial olive output.

They soon realized that there were other olive producers in the area who could benefit from a local mill. The Séka Hills mill now processes between 25,000 and 32,000 gallons of oil per year and the tribe has begun contracting with local growers to encourage even more olive production in the region.

Three years in, the farming operation is subsidized by the tribe’s casino. But the Yocha Dehe hope to see that change in the near future. “We are…very mindful of how important it is to diversify economically as we work to build a strong future for our Tribe and its generations to come,” says Kinter.

While olives may not be native to California, today’s Yocha Dehe tribe is guided by their forbears’ philosophy of nurturing the earth and sharing with neighbors. The Séka Hills olive mill is a testament to that commitment, fostering a surge in olive production that promises to promote economic development for all the residents of Capay Valley in exchange for caring for the land.


Members of the Oglala Lakota Nation have entered the modern marketplace using a food source that has long since called the plains of South Dakota home: buffalo. These grand animals used to roam in massive herds, but their numbers declined dramatically as colonization expanded westward. Since 2005, a company called Native American Natural Foods (NANF) has worked to replenish buffalo populations across the Great Plains by raising large, healthy herds on tribal lands.

The company uses buffalo meat in a range of products, including the Tanka Bar, an unusual energy bar that mixes buffalo and cranberries. Designed to provide long-lasting whole-food-based nutrition, the bar is available in major retailers, including Costco. Compared to other meats, buffalo is relatively low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and the company places a strong emphasis on minimizing processing, additives, and fillers.

But, the Tanka Bar is about more than simply providing a healthy alternative to sugary energy bars. According to NANF, the word “Tanka” evokes the notion that all people have the power “to extend a helping hand for those in need, to defeat racism, to protect our Mother Earth, and to love all others on our planet.” The company started Tanka Bar with the goal of curbing the dual issues of malnutrition and obesity on the reservation. Now, NANF has grown into a thriving food business.

NANF got its start through a loan from Lakota Funds, the first Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in the U.S. Native CDFIs provide small business loans, investment advice, and technical assistance to low-income Native American communities.

Lakota Funds has invested heavily in economic development on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the Oglala Lakota Nation live, and their efforts have had significant impact. Between 2000 and 2009, median income rose nearly 50 percent on the reservation, compared to just 27 percent across South Dakota. Pine Ridge also saw a 31 percent increase in jobs over the same time period, whereas the job growth rate statewide was just under 7 percent.

Despite these successes, only 16 percent of the $2.1 billion in agricultural revenue generated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation went to Native American farmers and ranchers in 2007. That’s because the Bureau of Indian Affairs leases over half of Pine Ridge land to non-tribal farmers, who often have no interest in investing in tribal communities.

Given these challenges, Lakota Funds’ support for businesses like NANF is crucial to help tribes—and buffalo—thrive. Everyone who works at the company is Native American and the business invests a portion of its profits to the Tanka Fund, which aims to protect a million acres of grasslands to sustain buffalo populations.

Seminole Pride

The Roe family had been growing tangerines and oranges in groves across Florida for four generations, pressing the state’s signature fruits into fresh juices under their Noble Juice brand. Looking to expand their business in the late 1990s, Noble Juice approached local restaurants who might be interested in putting their juices on the menu. Unfortunately, the company lacked the brand recognition and marketing expertise to break into the market.

Fortunately, the Seminole Tribe had experience in developing brands and building extensive distribution channels across the state through their Seminole Pride Beef and Naturally Native fresh fruit businesses and they saw an opportunity to partner with Noble Juice. What started as a simple marketing arrangement grew into a long-standing relationship, and the Tribe now owns a majority share of Noble Juice.

Part of the Seminole Tribe’s expertise comes from their history with the land in Florida. John Dembeck, Chief Operating Officer of Seminole Brand Development, notes that the Tribe has long been a major fruit grower in the state, and that they’ve “been in the cattle business since 1521.” Water preservation and land stewardship have been core elements to the Tribe’s agricultural legacy, and the Tribal Board looks for other producers in Florida who champion sustainability.

The Roes’ experience in crop diversification and organic cultivation made them a perfect match for the Board. Noble Juice also produces its own biodegradable bottles, as an effort to minimize the company’s impact on the South Florida watershed. “The Tribe finds [both tribal and non-tribal] small family businesses that struggle to compete,” says Dembeck, “and builds their brands to be competitive in the marketplace and celebrate who they are as a people.”

The Tribe has helped grow family-owned food and agriculture businesses from citrus to cattle, recognizing that long-term economic sustainability requires investment in several areas of production at once. But their partnerships are about much more than profits. Dembeck emphasizes, “There’s an ethos among the Tribe that says, ‘When we first planted, we didn’t do it to sell—we did it for the people.’”

Tribal food companies play a vital role in the U.S. food system. Businesses like Séka Hills, Native American Natural Foods, and Noble Juice not only celebrate indigenous food cultures, they also strengthen and support local food systems for non-tribal farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs alike. For that, we can all be thankful.

View the original post on Civil Eats here. To learn more about Civil Eats, click here.


Vce Ohfvnkv en Heromkv – “Corn is a Gift from the Creator”: Indigenous Gatherings This Fall

By Katie Cheney

Amidst the high profile Peoples’ Climate March and the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in the past few months, Indigenous groups and representatives from across the Americas met at two consecutive gatherings in Oklahoma – the second annual International Indigenous Peoples Corn Conference, and the International Indian Treaty Council’s 40th Anniversary International Indian Treaty Conference.

The International Indigenous Peoples Corn Conference was hosted by the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) and the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, an organization that addresses food and health needs of the Mvskoke people in Oklahoma. Distinguished elders, traditional leaders, honored guests, and Indigenous representatives from the Philippines, New Zealand, Guatemala, Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Hawaii, Alaska, and all across the United States met to discuss the culture of corn, threats to corn and traditional food systems, and solutions for the future. The Diné Nation in Arizona held the first International Corn Conference in September 2013. The 2014 Corn Conference was supported in part by First Peoples Worldwide.

The Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma hosted IITC’s 40th Anniversary International Indian Treaty Conference on September 10-12, 2014. The theme of the conference, “40 Years Defending the Rights and Recognition of Indigenous Peoples”, sparked discussions about persistent challenges facing Indigenous peoples of the Americas, including racism, food sovereignty, environmental health, climate change and reproductive health, among others. The conference was held at the home of the late Phillip Deere, one of IITC’s co-founders, in a traditional Creek “Roundhouse”.

Below are some photos from both the Corn Conference and the 40th Anniversary Conference, shared by the International Indian Treaty Council.

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

Photo Credit: International Indian Treaty Council

[Photo credit: International Indian Treaty Council]

Sources: Indian Country Today Media Network, The Voice of the Taino People


Report: Indonesian Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human Rights Abuses

Debt Bondage, Child Labor, and Fraud

The palm oil industry is growing exponentially in Indonesia, a country of plentiful natural resources, vast tracts of fertile soil, and comparatively limited industrial regulations.  As with many industrial sectors around the globe, the palm oil industry in Indonesia is rife with conflict. Allegations of environmental degradation, deforestation, and human rights abuses have surfaced repeatedly, and campaigns have been waged for years to promote industry reform and more sustainable practices.

The Indonesian federal government appears to be taking steps toward protecting its virgin rainforests and bringing to justice any corporations found implementing unsustainable practices within its borders.  These are welcomed efforts towards long-term improvement in the palm oil industry. The emerging dialogues are essential for Indonesia, whose booming palm oil industry has seen its exports triple in the last thirty years alone. However, these steps don’t get at the root of the problems facing Indonesian forests, nor do they prevent the exploitation of workers and affected local populations. As the industry expands, the human costs of the industry cannot be kept an open secret, as they perhaps were in the past.

Bloomberg Businessweek, seeking to explore these human costs, has recently published the findings of a nine-month investigation into palm oil production in Indonesia. Their team spent time on twelve plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) to discern and document the industry’s negative impacts on workers and local populations. These plantations are all owned by Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), the Malaysian multi-national company recently implicated in the massive June-July 2013 forest fires in the Riau Province of Sumatra.

The Bloomberg report indicates significant human rights abuses in KLK operations and by its contracting firms. These violations include human trafficking, violence against workers, contract and pay fraud, dangerous and unsanitary conditions, little or no medical care, child labor, debt bondage, forced captivity, and de facto slavery.

The human costs of palm oil production are often overlooked by international organizations justifiably focused on its deleterious environmental and ecological effects, but the Bloomberg report is helping to raise awareness about the social costs of this massive global industry. In this article, we explore how the issues outlined in the Bloomberg report impact Indigenous populations in the regions where KLK operates. We also provide background on the complexity of Indigenous rights issues in Indonesia–a nation home to more than 350 distinct ethnic groups–and explore recent legislative reforms that may pave the way for greater recognition of the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the archipelago.

The Cost of Feeding Global Demand

Indonesia and Malaysia produce 90% of the palm oil used around the globe, and Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) profits enormously from serving the ever-growing international need for inexpensive vegetable oil and biofuel. Human rights abuses within the industry are linked to the cheap and dirty means of production often implemented to meet these steep international demands more quickly while retaining wide profit margins.

Palm oil is exported in huge quantities from Indonesia and Malaysia to almost everywhere around the globe. According to Bloomberg, exports to North America and Europe accounted for 26% of last year’s KLK exports (though this market’s demand may decrease slightly in the coming years). The American multi-national Cargill, Inc. has received at least 31 shipments from KLK in the past three years, distributing palm oil and palm oil derivatives to Nestlé, General Mills, Kraft, and Kellogg. Proctor & Gamble has also been a major KLK export recipient, and its subsidiaries include Crest, Gillette, and Oil of Olay (these are all leading product lines in the US and China). Palm oil demand has been growing exponentially in China and India, and Malaysian palm oil producers, including KLK, are rising to the challenge. Many of these corporations’ plantations are located in Indonesia.

Deferring responsibility and blame for human rights abuses, KLK has suggested that any malpractice on their plantations is the result of negligent contracting firms, such as CV Sinar Kalimantan, hired as middlemen to manage recruitment and employment. KLK has further claimed that ineffective local law enforcement are to blame when situations arise on the ground. This finger-pointing persists in spite of KLK’s apparent devotion to corporate responsibility.

Cargill, speaking out on KLK’s behalf, has confirmed that KLK is in compliance with international labor laws and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) regulations; the company did not comment on the labor practices of KLK’s contracting firms, since legally it needs only to be concerned with the conduct of its direct supplier. Contracting firms found in violation of industry standards can be blacklisted, and KLK has declared that such condemnation would send a clear message to other negligent firms. Greenpeace, however, has suggested that industry enforcement of human rights as well as industry standards “remains weak” overall. KLK, as the world’s fifth largest producer of palm oil, certainly carries some of the responsibility for human rights abuses on its Indonesian plantations; sending a message is very different from proactively ensuring that employees are not abused, enslaved, and trafficked in the name of corporate profits.

The palm oil industry is active on many islands within the archipelago, primarily Sumatra and Kalimantan, which are homes to a variety of Indigenous and ethnic groups. Also residing in affected areas are migrants sponsored by the government to relocate during transmigrasi programs designed to relieve overpopulated islands like Java and Bali. Contract workers frequently migrate temporarily for work with extractive industries, lured by promises of steady work and reliable wages. After signing two-year contracts, many workers on plantations are, after their arrival, forcibly kept on the premises, given rotten food rations, and rarely able to access fresh water for basic needs and drinking. This was proven to be the case on KLK plantations.

Indigenous Peoples and local migrant or blended communities are also affected by the presence of KLK and the many other extractive corporations working across Indonesia. Communities living in the areas surrounding industrial plantations face the detrimental environmental affects of deforestation and illegal slash-and-burn clearing techniques as well as the ever-present risk of land theft, which reduces their access to resources that sustain their livelihoods. Limited restrictions on operations give companies enormous freedom, as is the case in many developing countries that have yet to legislate sustainability measures or Indigenous rights or the ability to enforce enacted legislation on initiatives to improve environmental and human protections.

Indigenous Rights in Limbo

Indonesia is a fascinating case study in Indigenous rights and affairs for a variety of reasons. As global awareness of human rights abuses within extractive industrial operations rises, greater and more careful attention will be paid to the archipelago and industries operating within it.

The Bloomberg report on KLK human rights abuses has been one of many contributing factors to recent federal initiatives in protecting Indonesian rainforests, preventing corporate abuse of employees, and legally recognizing the existence of Indigenous Peoples within its borders (which it has historically and effectively denied). Several local and national organizations within the country have also been making contributions in these struggles, including Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN Indonesia).

Headquartered in Jakarta, AMAN Indonesia has responded with great initiative to the gross under-representation of Indigenous Peoples in federal and provincial policies (only two of Indonesia’s 30 provinces mention Indigenous Peoples in their bylaws). A severe lack of legal rights has left Indigenous communities with no standing for asserting their customary land or land use rights. This has been very convenient for corporations seeking concessions on public lands, and the government has historically been very willing to grant them.

Palm oil contributes at least 3% to the country’s GDP. Palm oil exports alone account for 19% of total agricultural GDP. The federal government of Indonesia, more interested in the economic advantages of palm oil production than the long-term consequences of unsustainable production, has granted hundreds if not thousands of concessions on public lands, many of which are in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Concessions have been granted regardless of presence of Indigenous communities or customary land use. As the global movement for Indigenous rights has grown, particularly since the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (to which Indonesia is a signatory), so has the strength of Indigenous voices and coalitions in Indonesia, including AMAN.

Recent struggles undertaken by the organization for recognition and land rights have led to a groundbreaking Constitutional Court ruling in favor of Indigenous communities’ customary land rights. Though still “stuck in red tape,” the new legislation will dictate that public lands are no longer under the federal jurisdiction, but rather those Indigenous communities that have traditionally used them. The May2013 ruling has given hope to other Indigenous organizations in the country, such as Jaringan Kerja Pemetaan Partisipatif (JKPP), a community mapping network dedicated to mapping the customary land use of Indigenous Peoples throughout Indonesia.

Though the status of Indigenous Peoples’ recognition and rights in Indonesia remains in limbo, these recent developments all point to a tide of positive change within the country for Indigenous communities. The attention on the palm oil industry from mainstream Western media, the results of the Bloomberg report on human rights abuses within the industry, and the efforts of AMAN, JKPP, and other NGOs working to further Indigenous causes in Indonesia are all contributing to exposing the palm oil industry’s negative practices. The next step will be to promote new initiatives for sustainability and the elimination of human rights violations in the sector. Increased scrutiny of the practices of companies such as KLK is a good first step toward industry-wide reform. Considering the increasing demand of growing economies such as those in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) for cheap palm oil, quick and long-lasting reforms are absolutely essential for the protection of tropical rainforests, the health and well-being of local employees, and the welfare of Indigenous Peoples in all countries where palm oil production occurs.

(Photo source: OneGreenPlanet)


Not Your Average Cup of Tea

Enshi girl with tea

Imagine a delicious substance with the ability to relieve allergy symptoms, provide an energy boost, and help heal damaged skin. On top of that, it’s caffeine-free, packed full of antioxidants, and safe to ingest every day with no adverse side-effects. Sounds like a miracle pill, right? Actually, we’re referring to rooibos, an ancient form of tea first discovered and cultivated by the indigenous people of South Africa.

The Khoi, or Khoikhoi, meaning “real people,” originated in Northern Botswana and migrated to the cape of South Africa around 2,000 years ago. The Khoi were nomadic pastoralists, raising sheep, goats, and cattle. The group has a history of violent conflict with European settlers and merchants that has threatened and diluted their culture, but today part of their territory, Richtersveld, a mountainous desert landscape, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the unique lifestyle of the Khoi people who continue to raise livestock there.

The Khoi discovered rooibos, which is made from harvesting the leaves off the spiky aspalathus bush. The type of bush that produces rooibos is one of two hundred species of aspalathus that exist only in South Africa, and is the only one of those species with recognized health benefits.  Traditionally, the leaves are chopped with axes, crushed with hammers, fermented in heaps, and then dried in the sun, where oxidation turns the tea a distinctive red color. The drink remained solely within the Khoi community until 1772, when they offered it to traveling Swedish Botanist Carl Humberg. The tea did not gain popularity until Russian immigrant and tea maker Benjamin Ginsberg began commercially marketing it in South Africa as “Mountain Tea.”

Today, rooibos is enjoyed all over the world, and is just one of the five types of tea produced by Numi Tea. A Proud to Be Indigenous coalition member, Numi Tea is committed to producing high quality tea bags, loose leaf tea, and other tea products that celebrate and respect the rich cultural traditions of the beverage.

Numi Tea was founded in 1999 by brother and sister combo Ahmed and Reem Rahim. The two were inspired by numi, a favorite drink that they enjoyed growing up in Iraq. Numi means “citrus” in Arabic, and refers to a popular and healthful drink made from steeping dried lime.  Numi prides itself on attention to detail and beauty – Ahmed, who spent a decade working in European tea houses, is the company’s master tea blender, while Reem, as Creative Director, produces original artwork for all boxes incorporating photographs from Ahmed’s scouting trips as well as unique stains made from the tea itself. The company is committed to environmental health – all of their packing is recyclable, made from 85 percent post-consumer waste, and printed with soy-based ink. They offset their carbon emissions through the Big Tree Climate Fund and hope to eventually be a zero-impact business. Perhaps most importantly, Numi only uses organic tea, which has not been treated with fertilizers or pesticides. This is crucial – in addition to being harmful to tea pickers, these chemicals will leach directly into your cup of tea as you steep it, because traditionally tea leaves are not washed at any point during harvesting and production.

Numi is also committed to Fair Trade and Fair Labor practices. Half of their tea blends and 80 percent of their raw materials are Fair Trade Certified, and they forge direct relationships with all of their suppliers regardless of their certification. Fair trade ensures that the farm workers are paid a minimum fair wage, and the communities vote on where to spend their fair trade premiums, choosing initiatives to promote local health, education, enhance business skills, or protect the environment. This philanthropy is echoed within the California-based offices of Numi as well, where employees receive four paid hours per month to complete community service related to food, environment, social services, or education, as well as participate in a quarterly company-wide community service project. Numi currently direct sources their tea from seven tea farms across China, India, and Africa, including Dazhangshan, China, where traditional tea farmers have been cultivating tea plants chemical-free for over 1,200 years, and Enshi, China, where the Tujia (“local people”), an ethnic group with over 2,000 years of indigenous agricultural knowledge, work the farm and collect 40 percent higher wages than neighboring farmers.

Numi Tea’s commitment to safe environmental practices, fair trade and labor, and philanthropy is impressive, as are their high- quality products. Numi Tea has successfully marketed the complex beauty and appeal of tea for mass consumption while still preserving and respecting the unique indigenous cultures and communities that were the very first master tea blenders.

(Photo by Wen Lin, Xinhua News Network)


Maple Syrup Threatened by Climate Change

By Britnae Purdy

Ojibwa woman gathers maple syrup

Enjoy your morning pancakes with maple syrup? Thank the Native Americans. Legend holds that Woksis, an Iroquois chief, had a habit of slashing his knife into a tree each night after a day of hunting. One warm morning he pulled his knife from the tree and was surprised to find sap dripping out. His wife, not wanting to make a trip to the stream, collected the watery sap in a pail to cook dinner with later that night. The meat came out sweet and delicious, and Woksis began collecting maple sap every night for his meals.

Regardless of how sap was actually discovered, it is a fact that the Native Americans of New England and Canada had been collecting maple sap and processing it into syrup long before colonization. After collecting the sap in hollowed-out logs, they would insert white-hot field stones to bring the sap to a boil. They would either cool the sap at this point to make syrup, or continue to process it until the sap crystallized into maple sugar, which would not spoil and could be easily used to flavor dishes or as a quick source of energy.

When European settlers arrived, the Iroquois traded maple sugar with them and eventually taught them the sugaring process. The settlers added their own techniques to the process, and sap collection quickly became  standard practice for households across New England and Canada.

Unfortunately, this Native tradition, and maple syrup for your pancakes, may become extinct due to climate change. Atypically warm weather is disrupting the trees natural process for making sap. Maple trees produce the best sap on cool days preceded by freezing nights – the cold weather causes the sap in the tree to freeze, creating a low-pressure vacuum that draws more sap up from the roots. When temperatures rise the next day, the sap melts and oozes through the tree, making for easy collection.

When temperatures stay abnormally warm, as they have been lately, this process does not occur. Additionally, the warm weather causes the trees to begin to bud. The hormones that trigger budding also decrease the sap’s sugar content and spoil its taste. This means that it takes much larger quantities of sap to boil down to a gallon of syrup. Furthermore, warmer weather caused by climate change allows pests to prosper, killing young maple trees before they are able to reach maturity – trees must be 40-50 years old to produce the best quality of sap. Acid rain has also become a constant stressor on the trees.

Tappers who invest in expensive, modern vacuum systems are still collecting a decent amount of sap from their trees, but hobbyists, artisanal tappers, and communities who adhere to the traditional practices are suffering. The tapping season, which typically spans a month, is shortening to one or two weeks, and tappers are being forced to begin the process earlier and earlier in the year.

The trees are also fed up with climate change. In a phenomenon known as tree migration, maple trees are moving further north and up mountain slopes– a study by UVM ecologist Brian Beckage found that tree species in Vermont have shifted 90 meters since 1964, seeking colder climates. Maine, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New York, which combined produce 80 percent of the United States’ maple syrup, will lose production to Canada. Quebec currently taps one-third of their trees and produces 5.35 million barrels a year, 70 percent of the global supply.

Climate change experts predict that the maple sugaring industry could be wiped out by 2100, destroying a $65 million business and taking with it centuries of agricultural practices rooted in traditional indigenous knowledge.

Are you Indigenous or interested in Indigenous issues? Join us for Proud To Be Indigenous Week in May. Learn more at:

(Photo: Ojibwa woman gathers maple sap circa late 1800s to make maple syrup and sugar. From Minnesota Landscape Arboretum,


Maasai Women Find Pride and Respect Through Traditional Pastoralism

By Gilyn Gibbs on Native Abundance


The traditional Maasai pastoralists in North Eastern Tanzania are facing constant pressure from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA) to halt traditional practices regarding livestock and agriculture. The Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC) has set out to redeem food independence by supporting local agriculture and challenging the gender inequality that has plagued the Maasai community in modern times. The Council’s plan is to create a Women’s Solidarity Boma as a way for women to gain property rights and generate income through the ownership of livestock.

Known for its beautiful landscapes and large wildlife population, the Ngorongoro District of Tanzania has become a leading area for Tanzania’s tourism industry, and because of this, the Tanzanian government and NCAA have implemented strict measures to insure environmental sustainability. These measures include the transfer of land to commercial farming, restrictions on livestock grazing and a complete ban on all cultivation in the NCAA. Although these restraints on agriculture might be beneficial to the Tanzanian tourism industry, they have effectively banned basic food production for the Maasai. Besides losing access to grain, a staple in the traditional diet, they have also lost their ability to own and raise livestock, an important aspect of Maasai culture.

Traditionally, owning livestock or cattle is not only a means to obtain milk, meat, and income, but is also a measure of wealth for the pastoralist communities. Livestock is of utmost importance for the community and for the household but ownership has historically only been a privilege of the men. This aspect of Maasai society, mixed with western ideas of productivity and profit, has led to the disempowerment and marginalization of women. The Pastoral Women’s Council exclaims, “the history of development in Maasailand has valorized the role of men as the managers, producers and decision-makers of the pastoralist economy: overtime the once important role of women as custodians managers of family wealth and production, as independent traders, and as spiritual and intergenerational mediators has steeply declined, and with it their status and prospects in life”.  In Gender, Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Maasai Development, Dorothy L. Hodgson writes that the “development” and modernization that has been occurring throughout the NCA has given the Maasai an alternative interpretation of “individualism” (individual male control of property) and “rationality” (male “thinking” thinking over female “feeling”), which has resulted in the displacement of Maasai women from their former rights and roles in society.

The Pastoral Women’s Council is dedicated to bringing about change and opportunity for these women in Maasailand by promoting: women’s awareness and ability to self-organize, women’s and girl’s education as a tool for liberation and economic empowerment, and the accessibility of health and education to those most in need.  The Maasai Cultural Bomas were recently founded by local women in Ngorongoro (the majority of these widows who sought to be involved in the tourist industry by selling locals products) but they have been unable to gain the community support to develop the Bomas into a sustainable enterprise. The PWC with First Peoples Worldwide’s Keepers of the Earth Fund facilitated the creation of one of these Bomas, giving 25 community-elected women the access to 100 female goats and five male breeders. The goal is to create the continual growth of a sustainable program that will eventually benefit 300 women. As well as being a source of revenue, the PWC’s program will also hold a series of workshops and meetings in order to improve Boma members’ knowledge of their civil rights – such as voting, leadership, community activism and property rights. The Pastoral Women’s Council’s ultimate goal is to create 10 Women’s Empowerment Bomas at NCA.

The program has not only been a source of respect from the community, but a source of pride for the women involved. Although the effects of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority’s restrictions are being felt by all members of the community, the patriarchal view of wealth and the ownership of property has left women marginalized and disempowered as well as lacking an adequate source of food. The PWC reports that among the women in Maasailand, many talk about increased respect from their men as a result of the Boma because it has demonstrated that they are capable of creating and managing wealth. According to one Boma member, “the solidarity Boma has empowered the women and changed how they see themselves and even how the men relate with them. We are now able to stand up and talk in community meetings and be listened to.”


Indigenous Peoples Stand Up to Save Native Corn

By Gilyn Gibbs on Native Abundance

Native Corn

From time immemorial, indigenous communities in the Western Hemisphere have depended on corn not only as a source of nutrition, but as the center of their cultural traditions and spirituality. This past September, the Yaqui Peoples of Sonora Mexico hosted the inaugural “Indigenous Peoples International Conference on Corn” in the Zapoteca Nation of Oaxaca Mexico. The conference, attended by 48 Indigenous Nations across from North, Central and South America, was created to encourage unity among indigenous communities, restore traditional economies, and ensure the survival of all native varieties of corn.

The Indigenous Corn Peoples are a part of long-standing cultural tradition tied to the natural world. The core principle of the Yaqui Peoples, “is the sacredness, mystery and life-sustaining power of the natural world and living things.” They are deeply connected to their environment and express this through traditional ceremonies, songs, and dances. They consider their relationship with plants and animals as inter-dependent and interwoven. It’s for this reason that corn, the fundamental means of nutrition and healing, is so respected and cherished.  In indigenous communities, the people are directly related to all steps of the corn production process. Before the planting of the corn, there are ceremonies to express appreciation for the earth that allows the corn to be planted and for the water to allows it to grow. When it is time to harvest the corn there is a ceremony celebrating corn as the source of life and creation. The harvesting of corn isn’t simply to acquire food, but celebrates the all-encompassing lifestyle of devotion to the earth.  One member of the Yaqui reiterates: “Our struggles to protect corn as a source of our lives cannot be separated from our struggles to defend our rights to land, water, traditional knowledge and self-determination.”

Environmental degradation is a global issue, but for the Yaqui community, it comes with devastating consequences. The booming agri-business has not only pushed many Indigenous communities off of their land, but also heavily promoted the use of chemical pesticides and genetically modified (GMO) corn. The Mexican government has been a source of conflict, creating programs that cut off access to land and clean water, and mandating the use of this GMO corn for small farmers. The introduction of these corn variations has dramatically decreased the diversity and resiliency of traditional seed varieties.  The new strains of corn require much higher levels of agro-chemicals and water, which the Sonora desert ecosystem cannot provide. These negative effects aren’t only environmental. In 1997 Dr. Elizabeth Guillette conducted a study that detected high levels of pesticides in mothers’ milk and found severe learning and development disabilities in Yaqui children living in these high pesticide areas. The Yaqui people started the Corn Conference as a way to gain support of Indigenous Corn Peoples from the area and to stop the environmental, cultural, and health degradation.


The Indigenous Peoples International Conference on Corn created an atmosphere where all Indigenous Corn Peoples could unite around a single mission to protect their sovereignty and identity. They called “for a new focus on sustainable and respectful use of corn as a basis for our traditional and collective economic, social and cultural development”.  The Indigenous Corn Peoples committed to halt the use of pesticides and GMO corn in their territories.  They also resolved for all communities to focus on restoring and strengthening local markets and economies by protecting their food and seed sovereignty. The conference attendees decided that the way to do this is by reestablishing Indigenous seed banks and trade relationships so that the seeds with the most resistance and adaptability to climate change can be used, replicated, and shared among communities. They believe that the renewal of an indigenous trading system in the Americas will be the most beneficial way to share knowledge across communities and ultimately, bring change.

Although the conference was only one step in the movement for Indigenous rights, the Yaqui ultimately achieved their greatest goal: to organize fellow Indigenous communities and Peoples to defend Mother Earth and her lands, water, forests and corn against the threat climate change and unsustainable industrial food practices. By embracing their heritage as Indigenous Peoples to protect mother earth, they are also protecting the culture, spirituality, health, and traditions that have been passed on to them for centuries from being lost forever.