To reclaim ‘soil justice’ Diné Nation in US taxed junk food and used proceeds to fund community wellness

To reclaim ‘soil justice’ Diné Nation in US taxed junk food and used proceeds to fund community wellness


In 2014, Denisa Livingston, a Navajo tribal member, public health expert and organiser with Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA) and other members of her organisation successfully lobbied the Navajo tribal government to pass the Healthy Diné Nation Act, which imposed a two per cent tax on junk food – the first law of its kind in the country.

Diné means “the people” in the Navajo language. That tax raised over $7 million in its first four years, most of which has gone towards community wellness programmes on the reservation.

“It has been a slow progress to get to where we are now, and I’m really excited to see that there are now many more opportunities,” she said. “People realise that they are a change-maker, and that they can create change within their families or their villages.”

Prior to Covid-19, contemporary Indigenous stories and voices were largely absent from media, education and entertainment in the United States, according to a 2018 report. But there’s a sense that the pandemic’s highlighting of health disparities, along with the country’s two years of intense reckoning with racial injustice, could usher in a new era of awareness for Native Americans.

FX, NBC, Netflix, and Martin Scorsese are all actively producing projects telling Indigenous-centred stories with Native creators.

“All of this is going to show a lot of impact in the coming years,” said Erik Stegman, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy. “We’re going to have more and more young people who are actually learning about Native people instead of learning about Native stereotypes.”

This shift in popular culture is echoed in the very institutions once dedicated to squashing Indigenous voices.

In November 2021, the White House released an official memo declaring that Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) “can and should inform” US federal policy. It includes examples of how the federal government is already harnessing ITEK in collaboration with Indigenous people. Wabanaki Indians in Maine are working with the National Park Service on research demonstrating their ancient method of sustainably harvesting sweetgrass.

Meanwhile, Cowlitz Indians in Washington are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map historical distributions of threatened eulachon fish based on oral tradition.

“It’s a beautiful memo,” said Michael Kotutwa Johnson, an extension specialist at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment who is also a traditional farmer on the Hopi reservation.

But although Johnson is encouraged by the federal government’s recent stance, he said there’s still progress to be made. Indigenous farmers sometimes don’t qualify for funding because their methods aren’t considered “scientifically proven”, he explained. A 2021 study – which Johnson authored with colleagues from the University of Arizona – found that while Indigenous people work six per cent of the country’s farmland, in 2017 they were awarded a disproportionately low number of contracts by two major federal government programmes focused on environmentally friendly agriculture. Nearly 40 per cent more contracts would need to be awarded to Indigenous farmers to make their participation proportionate.

Like his grandfather before him, Johnson farms on land wholly contained within the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona. Dryland farmers like Johnson, in the high-elevation Hopi desert, grow their heritage corn – sometimes blue, deep purple, and white in colour – with little rainfall and no irrigation from canals. Some of the Hopi dryland farmer’s key methods developed, Johnson said, over 3,000 years of trial and error and include vegetative strips surrounding fields that block wind, and wide spaces between crops to maintain soil moisture.

“[Indigenous people] live in these beautiful areas that are very biodiverse. We know how to use the plants, what the soils can hold, when to plant,” Johnson said. “It’s all that stuff you learn by living in a location for a long, long, long time.”

Johnson has long straddled the line between the worlds of traditional Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific knowledge safeguarded by elite universities and valued by powerful government entities. When he attended Cornell University in the 1990s – before later earning a PhD from the University of Arizona – he said he was told it took at least 33 inches of rainfall to grow corn.

“I kind of smiled at them and said that’s not true,” he recalled: Johnson knew that on the Hopi reservation they grow corn with as little as six inches of rainfall.

The Native American Agriculture Fund outlined a $3.4 billion plan to support Native food and agriculture, which, Johnson said, depends on uncertain funding. He also mentioned efforts by the Intertribal Agriculture Council to develop an official “Rege[N]ation” seal that could go on certified food products from Indigenous farms committed to sustainability and the renewal of ancient wisdom, such as Skeet’s Spirit Farm.

Though Johnson is wary of Indigenous food systems being exploited and marketed for profit, he said the idea of collaboration is important. “That means that you’re sharing with [Indigenous people] your knowledge, you’re not just taking something,” he said.

With financial support from the government to bolster Indigenous farms’ operations and a growing appreciation for Native wisdom from the public, it’s easy to imagine a growing market for Indigenous-grown food that is healthy for people and the planet.

“Can you imagine Native Americans leading the United States’ agricultural quality production? To me, that’s important. I could see that happening,” Johnson said.

Spurred by the pandemic, an influx of money for Indigenous-led organisations is going toward basic necessities and closing the education, wealth and health gaps the virus exposed. But if it is sustained, it could also accelerate the proliferation of the Indigenous knowledge that developed over thousands of years.

At the heart of Skeet’s Spirit Farm mission is combating an industrial, Western mindset he sees as based on urbanisation, extraction, and fostering dependency, and replacing it with an Indigenous one based on a deep connection with – and knowledge of – nature. In Skeet’s mind, this change starts with the foundation itself, as exploitation begins with the soil and permeates to other parts of society. “This systematic racism comes from the ground,” he said. “Social justice? No, it’s soil justice.”

The Skeets are working with researchers to study the plant-feeding and water-retaining organisms in their own soil: fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and arthropods. Supported by a grant from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, Spirit Farm conducted a study to measure the microbial contents of their soil and nutrient density of the vegetables it produced.

As they applied their “Indigenous regenerative knowledge” – adding compost, shading and windbreaks to their garden – the beneficial fungi in the soil increased. They found that vegetables grown in theirs and other gardens using similar techniques had nutrient densities greater than 80 per cent of certified organic vegetables and 100 per cent of the conventionally grown, grocery-store bought vegetables they tested.

As they continue to fine-tune and study their techniques, interest in what they are doing continues to grow. Near the Skeets’ large rainwater reservoir is a guest trailer, which has been occupied by a steady stream of visitors from near and far since the pandemic began, including farmers, scientists, social justice activists and academics.

The gap between Western institutions and traditional Indigenous knowledge closes a little with every visitor.

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