The (Decolonized) Thanksgiving Edition: Addressing Native Americans’ Food Insecurity

by Francesca Marquez
November 25th, 2021

Pre-colonization, Native Americans prepared and enjoyed a diverse array of foods specific to their geographic location. The Chumash people, for example, consumed wild berries, acorns (‘ixpanish), and salmon (a’lilimuw), each of which was native to the central and southern coastal regions of California-- the Chumash’s ancestral land. After being violently displaced by colonizers, many of the Chumash’s food traditions were lost and replaced with new, foreign farming techniques that left them malnourished. In 1890, the government even decreed that Native Americans were not allowed to leave their reservations to fish, hunt, or father in their regular territories; instead, the government sent them rations of flour, sugar, lard, and other foods that were nutritionally empty. While thousands of Natives became accustomed to high sugar and processed foods, the torrent of disease which rippled through Native communities like the Chumash only capitalized on their poor nutrition to infect, and kill, millions.

In this day and age, many Native Americans still struggle with health conditions linked to poor nutrition. In fact, one in four Native Americans is food insecure, compared to the national figure of one in eight Americans. This extremely high insecurity figure implies that one-quarter of Native Americans do not have sustainable access to nutrient-rich food sources. Without the means of obtaining nourishing food, many Native Americans’ health suffers at a time when a majority of Americans cannot even afford quality healthcare.

More than a century ago, the government agreed to provide free health care to members of all federally recognized tribes through the Indian Health Service (IHS) agency; and yet, the agency is not equipped with adequate funds to provide comprehensive services at every facility. With a fixed yearly budget, the IHS agency cannot live up to its intended purpose-- and it shows. In 2017 alone, 30 percent of Native Americans were uninsured, which is double the national figure of 15 percent.

While the legacy of colonialism has undoubtedly stained the wellbeing of Native American communities, it still goes unresolved. The health care needs of Native communities are in a dire state and deserve proper attention. So perhaps when you gather ‘round the Thanksgiving table this year, your appreciation for having access to nutrient-dense foods will not be so hollow, and maybe you could find it in yourself to check out Move for Hunger, an organization that seeks to make access to nutritious food a right for every American.