First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is pleased to launch a new online series of essays that focuses on Native justice. With generous support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), First Nations invited multiple experts to discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.
We conclude the Native Justice series with this powerful essay by A-dae Romero-Briones, First Nations’ Director of Native Agriculture and Food Systems, who has dedicated her life to protecting and defending tribal food justice. In this essay, A-dae remembers the knowledge and wisdom embedded in the Coyote stories her grandparents shared with her as a child. According to A-dae, these oral narratives taught her about the importance of caring for the land and one another.
Also embedded in these trickster stories were lessons about settler colonialism. Over the years, she has used these lessons to help guide and shape her understanding of the Native food sovereignty movement. Below, she asserts that the Native food sovereignty movement requires a balance of both utilizing and protecting traditional ecological knowledge.
About A-dae Romero-Briones
A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa) is Director of Programs ‒ Native Food and Agricultural Initiative for First Nations Development Institute. She is formerly the director of community development for Pulama Lana’i. She is also the co-founder and former executive director of a nonprofit in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. Romero-Briones worked for the University of Arkansas’ Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative while a student there. She wrote extensively about food safety, the Produce Safety Rule and tribes, and the protection of tribal traditional foods. A Fulbright U.S. Scholar, Romero-Briones received her Bachelor of Arts in public policy from Princeton University, a doctorate in law from Arizona State University, and LLM in food and agricultural law from the University of Arkansas. Her thesis was on the Food Safety Modernization Act as it applied to the federal tribal relationship. She was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in Agriculture and sits on the National Organic Standards Board and the Sustainable Ag & Food Systems Funders Policy Committee.
By A-dae Romero-Briones
When I was in third grade at Cochiti Elementary School, my class wrote an opera. The story was about Coyote and Quail. Coyote is hungry and tries to trick three little Quails into becoming his meal by convincing the Quails that he is helping them. The Quails ‒ well aware of Coyote’s character and behavior ‒ use Coyote to help them in their food efforts because of his speed and strength.
Both Coyote and Quail need to eat and do not want to be eaten. They both employ cunning and intelligence by playing on the emotions and needs of the other, and by focusing convincingly on emotional and physical weakness. Neither gets exactly what he wants, but both leave with half-full bellies. In the end, Coyote and the Quail live in the same land – not friends, not enemies, but co-existing in a balance that could tip into violence at any given time.
Quail is always weary. Coyote is always watching. My class consisted of all Cochiti children who grew up hearing Coyote stories both from our grandparents and from Coyotes howling in the fields and in the hills. We watched as quail scurried across dirt roads or called out searching for mates. We were all part of the same land. Coyote and his stories were generations older than my classmates and me, but we all knew Coyote as a trickster. He brought laughter and goodness, but also devastation and death. Through storytelling, we Cochiti children had to learn how to discern the gift.
Unbeknownst to us third graders, our grandparents, our lands, and Coyote were preparing us for the world. While our teachers taught us mathematics and how to read in English, our grandparents told us Coyote stories to teach us about the gifts of colonization, its hunger, and how to be wary of what it offers.
In food systems, mainstream food supply chains seemingly offer opportunity, convenience, and uniformity, but they require much time, intensive energy, and financial capital. Indigenous food systems are largely place-based, interdependent community relationships. They have a deeply rooted history that promotes environmental awareness and requires presence, community, and knowledge access. Tribal food justice is the tension point between mainstream food systems and Indigenous food systems, and ultimately, who gets to decide which food system operates within a Native community.
Much like the relationship between Coyote and Quail, the power to decide how a community eats is not clear. It’s often nuanced and influenced by perceptions of power, history, and awareness. Often, food conversations center around access – like the inability of Native households to purchase food because of income levels, inadequate supply chains (lack of grocery stores or fresh fruits and vegetables in an area), or workforce pay equity within existing food supply chains.
Coyote’s trick or the trickster’s trick is framing food problems in capitalistic terms. Capitalistic economic problems invite solutions intently focused on strengthening mainstream food supply chains. They may even offer short-term benefits to tribal incomes and business owners, yet there is always a cost – to become more embedded into a mainstream food supply chain that rarely envisions tribal people and community as little more than mere consumers and places from which to extract money, land, water, and human/natural resources. Like understanding that Coyote can swallow Quail whole when he is not aware, understanding mainstream food systems and food supply chains may assist tribes in their sovereignty efforts, but only if we are also aware of the trappings of capitalism and avoid them.
While economic and capitalistic solutions are critical conversations to our existing mainstream food supply chains, Native communities have another food language to also consider. Fred Dubray of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe says, “In my experience of trying to bring buffalo back to the land, a lot of non-Indian people can understand the need to do that and the good it can do for the land. Whereas they can’t understand the need to bring the culture back.” Fred continues this thought, “The buffalo were everything. The government recognized that and that’s why they decided if we destroy the buffalo, we will bring these people to their knees. So that’s what they set out to do.”
Native food justice sets out to do the opposite of what the government attempted to do, which was to control and manage entire groups of people through food reinforcement. Food justice is about the work to bring back culture and share the stories of the trickster to yet another generation of young Native people in hopes that they, too, will learn how to be aware and discern the power plays.
Like Coyote stories found in almost every tribal community across the continent, each community has experiences in the face of colonization that have changed and altered landscapes, food systems, and community. Every tribe has a story to tell.
One of the key talents of Coyote is that he always changes, much like colonization has changed. In turn, so does Quail. In “Colonialism’s Culture,” author Nicholas Thomas states: “Colonialism is not a unitary project, but a fractured one, riddled with contradictions and exhausted as much by its own internal debates as by the resistance of the colonized.” Often left out of historical reflections, especially those in writing, are the many stories of tribal cohesion (what some may call “resistance”), and our abilities to respond to colonial devastation in ways that protect community.
Tribes were not just objects of colonization; they were brazenly crafting identities in the face of colonization. While colonization is no longer about the removal of tribal peoples from their lands, eliminating traditional food sources, reservation imprisonment, and genocide, the new form of colonialism is about management and the accounting of “resources.”
Philosopher Michael Foucault articulated the concept of “governmentality” as “the ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific, albeit complex, form of power.” In other words, institutions can collect data (collection information), analyze that data, and then use that information as a form of control over subject populations.
Management is the new colonial body of power and control. In food systems, tribal land/food practice, food, and food/plant/animal knowledge once under attack are now the sought-after approaches to be managed and studied as new areas of knowledge-capture, like traditional ecological knowledge. While interest in tribal foods and traditional ecological knowledge is growing, so is the ever-present awareness of tribal communities to protect their foods and knowledge from gentrification and being utilized as another form of control.
Tribal food systems have changed in the face of colonial pressures. Land and water loss, dishonored treaty rights, environmental devastation, and seed separation have all created hunger in the land of plenty. Similarly, the U.S. government’s efforts have also changed. There are more programs seemingly supportive of tribal efforts and self-determination. Tribal people have been appointed to positions of power within the government hierarchy so that they can offer tribal perspectives in federally funded programs and processes that funnel financial resources to tribal food work.
Additionally, many tribal producers are engaging in economic endeavors of tribal food businesses. All these efforts seem to increase the visibility of tribal people, community, food systems, and lands. Vine Deloria, Jr. in “Custer Died for Your Sins” described a similar process in which Native scholars became more embedded in mainstream academic institutions. He says, “Yet, the bicultural trap, conceptually laid for Indians by scholars, does not appear to be ensnaring the most astute young Indian people. Accommodation to white society is primarily in terms of gaining additional techniques by which they can give a deeper root to existing Indian traditions.”(239).
Tribal citizens appointed or elected to government positions and tribal food businesses getting national attention are reasons for celebration. Yet, trickster is always watching. The more accommodation, the more information, and more data revealed does become more leverage to use against tribal communities from which they are managed. Given that American law and government rarely recognize community ownership over land, knowledge, or property, the accommodation and accessibility over tribal foods, knowledge, and practice create a need for tribal citizens to have strong connections to their tribal authorities and communities lest they become unwitting actors who undermine tribal control and power.
The power of control and decision-making within tribal communities has been a pressure point since colonial contact. Likewise, attacks on tribal food have consistently been used as a form of control and subjugation. As mentioned previously, Fred Dubray described how buffalo were targeted to control the Indigenous populations that depended on them.
Dr. Rebecca Webster of Ukwakha, a tribally-led nonprofit focused on reinvigorating Oneida food practice, recounted how stories of Oneida corn were burned and stolen by the U.S. military so the nation could be moved from their homelands in New York to their present-day reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In her book “Our Precious Corn: Yukwanénste,” she writes, “The early explorers marveled at our corn and other crops, and the military general targeted those same crops in an effort to defeat Yukwamujsyu-ni people.”
With “food justice” (like “food sovereignty,” a term used more in present food study and food movements), the use of food as political economic power is older than the U.S. military itself. Likewise, tribal engagement and strategy in maneuvering, avoiding, and challenging external control through food is just as old. For instance, inter-tribal relationships have become even more important and continue to play a critical part of food sovereignty. The dynamic of food as power and control in tribal communities is one that becomes part of the newer framework of “food justice.”
Present-day food justice conversations are collective responses from many diverse communities. According to Boston University, food justice is a community – a response by many individuals, many communities, many regions – to an exploitative and extractive food system that expands continents and dominates how most Americans eat. The Food Justice Movement works to ensure universal access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all, while advocating for the well-being and safety of those involved in the food production process.
But, for Native communities, there is much more at stake. Native communities are finding their way back to food systems that, like tribal people themselves, emerge and are born of the land. Rather than working within a mainstream American food supply chain connected, managed, and supported through a monolithic, limited variety of commodities and offers few places of access with primarily cash only and capital − and is managed through economic data − tribal food systems are as diverse and as differentiated as tribal people.
Ironically, there is not a single tribal food system. Tribal food systems, like tribal food justice, is really a reference to the relationship of many tribal communities to a mainstream food system originally created to assimilate, colonize, and subjugate tribal communities and people to mainstream culture. Yet, because of this common relationship and approach, tribal food systems, and in turn, tribal food justice, emerged.
Shared experience has created a shared understanding and a shared movement. Tribal food justice is about shedding colonial models that morph and change, offer peace, and then trick tribal people into believing that we are better off with food systems not within tribal control. Yet, it is also because of mainstream food systems that we gain collective strength, awareness, and ultimately, people power.
In Cochiti, our grandparents loved us enough to tell us Coyote stories. Perhaps, they knew from experience all about the face and character of colonization. Perhaps they did not, and the story of Coyote is as old as the earth, and we have seen many Coyotes come and go over time and it’s because of his story and its re-telling that we continue to exist.
Most importantly, Coyote can bring laughter and devastation. But both can also create a response that can change the whole story.
 Thomas, Nicholas. Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel, and Government. (Princeton University Press, 1994), 51.
 Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France 1977–1978. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 108.
 Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 239.
 Webster, Rebecca M. Our Precious Corn: Yukwanénste. (Michigan State University Press, 2023).
 Webster, 60.