For Some Native Farmers, Agriculture Is a Form of Resistance

In different corners of America, Indigenous communities reclaim culinary heritage and identity.

Corn and sunflowers at Ukwakhwa
Corn and sunflowers at Ukwakhwa | Photo by Emily Saladino
Corn and sunflowers at Ukwakhwa | Photo by Emily Saladino

It’s a bright, cool October morning in Oneida Nation, and Becky Webster is harvesting the first sunchokes of the season. “Do you think we need more?” asks Webster, an Oneida farmer, seedkeeper, activist, and educator. She and her husband own this 10-acre farmstead, Ukwakhwa, some 15 miles west of Green Bay, Wisconsin. They plan to serve the sunchokes at an upcoming community gathering.

I suggest we dig up one more plant, joking that making way too much food is an article of faith in my Italian American family. “Oh, our community is like that, too,” Webster says with a laugh. “We love to feed each other.”

Formerly an Oneida nation lawyer specializing in land issues, Webster began farming in 2017. She teaches in the American Indian Studies Department of University of Minnesota Duluth, and, in her upcoming book, In Defense of Food Sovereignty, explores the Oneida Nation’s ongoing legal battles with local government land regulation. Her work coincides with a widespread cause.

The Indigenous food sovereignty movement focuses on Native self-determination via foodways. It’s a multifaceted, intertribal initiative that includes farmsteads like Ukwakhwa as well as individuals like Brit Reed, a Choctaw chef and artist whose 2015 essay, “Food Sovereignty is Tribal Sovereignty,” launched a 9,400-member digital community of Indigenous cooks and thinkers. There are also educational organizations like Wild Bearies, restaurants like Minneapolis’ Owamni, consultancies like Birch Basket, advocacy groups like the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA), and many others.

Ukwakhwa hosts food-themed classes and events
Ukwakhwa hosts food-themed classes and events | Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

It’s impossible to think or talk about food sovereignty without grappling with centuries of pain, and yet the work of growing food and empowering communities feels profoundly hopeful. Agriculture sustains us in every sense. Self-determination is as tangible as sunchokes growing outside your kitchen window and as ephemeral as feeling safe in your own home.

To try to understand what’s at stake here, you do have to stare directly into the darkness of our pasts and present. “There’s been a lot of historic violence and destruction to our communities, and so much was done to unravel and dismantle our food systems,” says Aaron Lowden, an Acoma farmer and seedkeeper in Acoma Pueblo, some 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

During and following European colonization of the Americas, many colonists-turned-statesmen specifically targeted Indigenous agriculture. In 1779, then-General George Washington led a push to destroy more than 40 villages and unknown acres of land that the Iroquois had cultivated from what we now call Pennsylvania north to the Finger Lakes. It drove some 5,000 people from those areas to British-held Fort Niagara, where many died. In the 1820s, after losing more than 5 million acres of ancestral land, the Oneida Nation purchased land from the Winnebago and Menominee tribes in what would become Wisconsin, a place with different soils suited to other crops.

Becky Webster harvests sunchokes at Ukwakhwa
Becky Webster harvests sunchokes at Ukwakhwa | Photo by Emily Saladino

Forced displacement continued on a massive scale, claiming lives and dismantling agricultural traditions. The 1830 Indian Removal Act, also known as the Trail of Tears, evacuated about 46,000 Indigenous people from their homes and acres of cultivated lands to relocate to a radically different climate in modern-day Oklahoma.

One of the trickiest things about history is it has no hard stop. Other modes of subjugation endured well into the last century. From 1819–1969, the U.S. government ran or supported more than 400 boarding schools for Native children that were specifically designed to strip them of Indigenous cultures, including language and food. An investigative report that the U.S. Department of the Interior released in May stated that boarding school students endured “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” and at least 500 children died.

“My grandmother was a boarding school survivor, and all that knowledge, so many of those traditions were lost,” says Webster, who considers herself starting from scratch as a farmer. “Instead of having inherited that knowledge, we’re learning as we go.”

The schools also created generations of trauma. Like many postcolonial missives, they aimed to change how people think and what they value.

“One of the things boarding schools forced upon us was individualism,” says Lowden. For communities whose traditions prioritized collective thinking and actions, this was devastating. “They forced young people to be competitive and to value profit over community sustenance and being a communal people, when that’s how we survived.”

Crops at Ukwakhwa, a farmstead in Oneida Nation
Crops at Ukwakhwa, a farmstead in Oneida Nation | Photo by Travel Wisconsin

The sunchokes that Webster harvested grew out of heritage seeds she sourced through the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN), a program to source, grow, and protect heirloom seeds and plants, including those that were lost due to relocation, forced migration, and, in recent decades, industrialized farming.

“Our seeds are our relatives,” Webster explains. “They are living, breathing things, and it’s our responsibility to care for them as we would any other relative.” Seed rematriation, or the practice of returning seeds to their places of origin with their historical caretakers, connects Indigenous communities to traditions, and is an ecologically prudent agricultural approach.

“You learn a lot just by being on one piece of land for hundreds of years,” says Lowden, who has also worked to collect and restore Acoma heritage seeds. “Our answers cultivated a lot of knowledge… Those seeds were very intentionally saved because it’s how we’ve saved ourselves from all the violence and disruption that has happened to our communities.”

Steve Webster welcomes guests to Ukwakhwa
Steve Webster welcomes guests to Ukwakhwa | Photo by Travel Wisconsin

Once you start thinking of seeds as ancestors and agriculture as resistance, the seemingly simple act of growing vegetables and harvesting them to feed your community takes on layers of meaning. “There’s a lot that goes into this movement,” says Lowden. “It’s not just food, it’s a restorative community approach, a holistic way of restoring our communities to the caregiving interconnected communities they once were.”

In both philosophy and in practice, food sovereignty is a lofty goal. It requires restructuring economies and mindsets. But it has an empowering way of being straightforward, too. To Webster, who lives on Ukwakhwa with her husband, two daughters, and three dogs, doing the work is the point.

“We’ve already succeeded,” she says when I ask what her objective is at Ukwakhwa. “Learning our traditions and planting our foods so they aren’t lost to future generations is success.”

As I dug into the heavy clay soil next to her last month, I felt humbled by Webster’s sense of purpose in reclaiming history. I knew that beyond that plot of land was an intersecting network of people working toward something deeper than my two hands would ever grasp.

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Emily Saladino is a writer, editor, and recipe developer based in New York. Previously the Digital Managing Editor of Wine Enthusiast and Editor in Chief of VinePair, her writing has been published in The Washington PostBloomberg,BBC, and others. She currently reviews wines from Greece, Crete, and Georgia for Wine Enthusiast. A former professional cook and bartender, she holds a Culinary Arts Degree from The French Culinary Institute and Level II Certification from The Wine & Spirit Education Trust.