In 1987, just before the SARE program funded its first grant, the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) was founded to provide a unified effort to promote change in Indian agriculture for the benefit of American Indian people. For more than thirty years, the IAC has been conducting a range of programs designed to further the goal of improving American Indian agriculture. Collaboration between the USDA Office of Tribal Relations and the IAC resulted in Technical Assistance Centers to increase access and use of USDA programs and services by American Indian producers and Tribes.
IAC technical assistance providers share information about federal agency regulations and processes and assist with everything from financial planning, to crop insurance, to conservation practices (USDA FSA 2013). Dan Cornelius is the IAC technical assistance specialist for midwest Tribes, which includes the states of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He works to strengthen regional connections through networking and educational opportunities. In 2012, he was searching for a way to promote knowledge development and sharing among educators working directly with American Indian farmers, ranchers, and other food producers. Cornelius applied for and received a $75,000 NCR-SARE Professional Development Program (PDP) grant to conduct a sustainable agricultural workshop series for Tribal educators.
Cornelius tapped into his network of state extension agents, academic experts, and local Tribal staff and food producers to find workshop instructors. Although stand-alone workshops were hosted, many workshops were hosted at food and agriculture events in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota such as the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, the Indigenous Farming Conference, and the Food Sovereignty Summit. Cornelius says hosting workshops at larger events allowed busy Tribal educators to combine multiple events and leverage funding. From a seed saving train-the-trainer event at the 2014 Food Sovereignty Summit to a 2015 Gathering of Native Americans event with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community about traditional tobacco, the events provided a forum to convene a variety of educators. The primary accomplishment, according to Cornelius, was hosting education sessions in conjunction with the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit in 2014, 2015, and 2016, where workshop sessions covered topics including Good Agricultural Practices and the Food Safety Modernization Act, seed saving, butchering, tree syrup and sugar production, community food sovereignty assessments, USDA financing opportunities, and food hubs.
“Many events supported by this PDP grant have received tremendous positive feedback, particularly the initial Food Sovereignty Summit, but the 2016 Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit at Gun Lake’s Jijak Camp sparked a response unlike any other event,” reported Cornelius. “Social media absolutely exploded following the event, and many organizations have contacted the IAC for assistance in hosting similar events that combine traditional teachings with modern agricultural education and outreach.”
Cornelius says food sovereignty is a critical issue for many Indian people. As defined by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Cornelius said there has been a rise in the overall presence of indigenous food and noted that these IAC events have started to inspire more mainstream conferences to include more indigenous food.
“From the Tribal perspective, food sovereignty is a crucial issue,” said Cornelius. “We need sustainable production practices, but we also need economic sustainability. Building and sharing knowledge, connecting resources, and providing mentorship opportunities will help us reach those goals. This grant was a lifeline to make it possible to bring people together, and when you bring together educators, they can take that knowledge back to their communities. This has become a collective movement, and more capacity has been built. More partnership and mentoring opportunities are coming up.”
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