Connecting Communities, Building Groundwork for Sovereignty

“We cannot claim sovereignty unless we feed ourselves.”

These words by Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of Shiprock Chapter on the Navajo Nation, ring true, and they were the driving belief behind a recent collaboration between farmers and local tribes — one that has built a framework for future food production and distribution throughout the Southwest.

The collaboration involved a grassroots effort by the Shiprock Traditional Farmers Cooperative. Yazzie had identified area farmers who had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in them missing out on their usual sales and delivery channels. Meanwhile, for the neighboring Pueblos, the pandemic had thwarted spring planting and fall harvesting, leaving them with little corn, squash, and melons. The farmers had no customers, and the Pueblo communities were without the produce they normally find in abundance this time of year. But, in Indian Country, people take care of each other, and they came together to connect supply with demand.

Connecting for capacity

Masks and gloves made for a safe delivery in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regis Pecos, co-director of the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School who has served as both lieutenant governor and governor of Cochiti Pueblo, learned about this surplus of produce from Yazzie and reached out to First Nations for assistance. In turn, First Nations issued funding to Shiprock’s fiscal agent, Indian Country Grassroots Support, through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund to offset the cost of the produce and support the effort. Pecos then coordinated with Yazzie to facilitate the delivery of over 600 pounds of squash and 1,200 ears of corn to San Felipe Pueblo, as well as to Picaris Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, Pueblo of Zuni, and Okay Owingeh. At San Felipe, watermelon and cantaloupe were also delivered as a gift to the elders of the tribe at the San Felipe Senior Center.

Jackie Francke, First Nations’ Vice President of Programs and Administration, said First Nations was honored to be part of the collaborative effort and to participate in the delivery to San Felipe. “This is an example of revitalizing Native capacity in an urgent time,” she said.

Through the collaboration with Shiprock Traditional Farmers Cooperative, Native farmers delivered hundreds of pounds of produce to six Pueblos for nourishment and ceremony.

Francke added that, because of COVID-19, many communities didn’t plant this past spring, or were able to plant and grow only for their own families and not their greater communities. Based on this, when harvesting time came around, some Native communities were lacking access to the traditional produce that’s imperative for health and for ceremony. Francke said many tribes like San Felipe received food boxes, but not the Native ingredients that are so important to communities for culture and strength. “That’s what we wanted to deliver and that’s what was so motivating for everyone involved,” she said.

Pecos was grateful that the connection was able to happen. “I think it is a beautiful gesture,” he said. “It is a different framework and a gift of mutually valued sources for the well-being of both groups, the farmers and the recipients — mentally, physically and spiritually — and for the soul, for the Pueblos, the Navajo, the elders, and the youth.”

“It was very moving,” agreed Francke. “With our masks and gloves on, we couldn’t shake hands or hug, but we all talked and laughed as we unloaded the produce. And before we left, the the farmers were blessed with more harvest.”

A plan for the future

For culture and ceremony, fresh melons play a key role. This gift of fruit to the elders at the senior center was transported in the back seat and delivered with care.

Those blessings are being welcomed. For both Yazzie and Pecos, the effort to bring together farmers and tribes resulted in immediate COVID-19 relief, and also a framework for future collaborations. “This helped both communities. Now that we have these connections, we can work together going forward,” said Yazzie, a farmer himself. “Now we can establish a growing schedule, so we’ll be ready to reach out again.”

First Nations looks forward to being part of that next outreach and investing in food sovereignty. Together, we can indeed feed ourselves.