We Are What We Eat: The AIHEC Student Congress and Food Sovereignty

Volume 25, No. 3 - Spring 2014
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GROWING SOVEREIGNTY. Students at IAIA grow Native fruits and vegetables in the institute’s demonstration gardens. Photo courtesy of IAIA

Every year, the newly elected officers of the AIHEC Student Congress (ASC) develop and adopt initiatives to focus their efforts throughout their term. In the past, administrations have concentrated on popular topics pertaining to Indigenous peoples seeking higher education at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs). The current ASC has decided to uphold this tradition by tackling an issue that directly affects every Native community and campus nationwide and abroad—food sovereignty.

By promoting healthier communities, supporting student-led projects, and assisting in the reindigenization of our food sources, we aim to help change the status quo when it comes to the sustainability of our cultures. The rise of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and premature death in our Native communities illustrates the need for this increased awareness about what we consume and put into our bodies on a daily basis. We have divided our approach to this initiative into two specific foci. The first will deal directly with TCU outreach.


THE 2013 AIHEC STUDENT CONGRESS. Front row (from left): Midwest representative Robert LeDoux, vice-president Jamelyn Ebelacker, treasurer William Bass, and secretary Charnelle Yazzie. Back row (from left): advisor Alex Grandon, president Dwight Carlston, historian Myron Wanna Jr., sergeant-at-arms Leslie Brownrigg, and advisor Carman Henan. Photo by Heater Heatley

We have established an ASC task force that is collecting data on which schools have pre-existing food-related projects on campus, and which schools are in need of assistance in starting such projects. The second focus of the initiative is the development of the Food Sovereignty Competition, which will make its debut at the annual AIHEC Student Conference in Billings, Montana, in March 2014. The goal of the competition is to provide further incentive in the form of a cash prize to TCUs that can effectively demonstrate a successful plan of action that enhances food sovereignty on their respective campuses. With this initiative, we hope to see greater understanding of the importance of food sovereignty at TCUs, followed by a re-integration of this knowledge into college curricula. Several TCUs have already begun to incorporate traditional food knowledge into their curriculum, as well as into the development of the college. A great example of this can be found at the Institute of the American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At IAIA there are various classes on food sovereignty, including the course “Indigenous Concepts of Traditional Food and Wellness,” in which students learn about a plethora of Native foods, the cultures and regions where those foods can be found, and the history and knowledge of food as medicine. The class, taught by Dr. Lois Ellen Frank, also involves testing that knowledge by allowing students to cook up delicious, nutritious, and simple recipes free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), processed food ingredients, and dairy products. Elsewhere on campus, the USDA Demonstration Garden and nearby greenhouse provide space for students, staff, and faculty to grow organic heirloom vegetables and traditional Native plants such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.

Referencing the success of food sovereignty efforts at colleges such as IAIA, the ASC intends for our initiative to assist in the implementation of similar plans at all TCUs. We as a congress understand that we alone cannot make this movement happen overnight. When it comes to changing minds, lifestyles, and the way we understand food, the process will be time-consuming and arduous. However, we also acknowledge that we have the power to plant that seed, to push the boundaries of what we can do as a group of determined students, and, more importantly, as a group of young Native leaders.

Together, with the help and support of our AIHEC advisors, motivated students, and the unwavering Native community, we can develop goals and a template for future generations and administrations in the hope that one day we can once again achieve healthy, sustainable lifestyles. For more information on this AIHEC Student Congress initiative, or to get involved, email jebelacker @iaia.edu.

Jamelyn Ebelacker (Santa Clara Pueblo) is vice-president of the AIHEC Student Congress.

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