Science: Food Sovereignty and Environmental Sustainability

Science: Food Sovereignty and Environmental Sustainability

Lesson Plan 

Background for teachers
The traditional lifeways of Indigenous people in Oregon were adapted to the natural rhythms and cycles of food sources, and first foods formed the backbone of many Indigenous societies because of their cultural, economic, and medicinal importance. Foods were also deeply respected and regarded by tribes because they were necessary for survival of the group. Traditional first foods such as salmon, huckleberries, and camas nourished tribes in Oregon in numerous ways and kept them vibrant and healthy. In exchange, Native Americans in Oregon saw themselves as stewards of first foods and the land that produces them. 

They honored first foods in cultural practices (e.g., first-salmon celebrations) and by using sustainable hunting, gathering, and land-management practices that protected first foods and reduced overconsumption and waste. Examples included setting controlled fires on oak savannahs to eliminate brush and kill acorn-eating insects and setting aside portions of camas prairies from harvesting to allow the plants to repopulate an area.

These and other traditional food cultivation and consumption patterns in Oregon were disrupted or curtailed by colonization by non-Natives and the introduction of western diets and processed foods. Settlers fenced off lands on which tribes foraged and used them for farming and ranching of non-Native plant and animal species. Dams flooded traditional Native fishing spots (e.g., Celilo Falls) and disrupted or blocked salmon migrations. By force or necessity, Native Americans in Oregon gave up many traditional hunting and gathering practices and adapted to the settlers’ capitalist economy, food system, and diet. Besides these traumas of initial colonization, over generations these changes had impacts on many aspects of tribal life, as diets shifted dramatically to western high-fat and high-sugar foods and sedentary lifestyles. In addition, the denigration of their former lifeways as inferior or useless also caused further psychological damage. Native Americans’ ancestral lands have also been affected by the changes wrought by colonization as the market economy promotes commodity crops and consumer practices that deplete soil; decrease species diversity; contaminate ground and waterways with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; and alter plants, animals, and food through genetic engineering and “food science.

Native American tribes in Oregon are working to restore traditional food systems and practices. These efforts seek to “decolonize the diet” of tribal members, restore connections of tribal members to first foods, restore and promote traditional land-management practices, and revive cultural pride. They are an attempt by Native American people to restore their food sovereignty in the same way they have fought to maintain their rights to govern their own affairs in other domains. Tribes are using both traditional knowledge and oral histories and western science and partnering with other tribes and non-Native organizations to restore native habitats, protect native plant and animal species, and model conservation and environmental sustainability practices that can benefit both Native and non-Native Oregonians alike.

Additional Materials