Native American Food Insecurity: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

“[The Indian Removal Act] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Andrew Jackson, 1830 addressing Congress.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 extracted hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their land and placed them onto reservations where they were promised heath care, education, and food rations. Shortly after in 1887, the Dawes Act, which gave the President power to divvy up reservation land, was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland. Native Americans were told to register on a tribe “roll” and were given allotments of the reservation land while the rest was sold off.

Although Native Americans have experienced (and still are experiencing) severe conditions and racism, having their traditional food practices stripped from them with their land has proven to have one of the longest lasting negative affects stemming from US government policy.

Before European settlers arrived, Native Americans had a versatile food system that adapted to the seasons and sustained entire communities. Some of their seasonal foods included cultivated crops such as squash, corn, beans, turnips, and wild rice. As their food preservation techniques advanced, Native Americans began to specialize in preserving specific foods like game meat, berries and/or corn. “Knowledge of winter food systems was essential as a key element in balancing the amount of fresh food against stored food consumed during the winter. Out of these food systems grew the communal knowledge and traditions for how Native people prepared, harvested, stored, and used food for ceremonial purposes.”

In 1779 during the Revolutionary War, American soldiers were instructed to burn Native American villages, corn fields, and orchards to assure that they couldn’t replant any corps and would remain under American control. Between 1868 to 1881, an estimated 31 million buffalo were hunted to near extinction by the U.S. government leaving roughly 500 buffalo by 1885. This was especially detrimental to the Native Americans as they regarded the buffalo as a “Great Spirit” and used a hunted buffalo to make shelter, food, and weapons for their communities. These mass destructions of Native land and other crucial food sources started the decline of the Native food system as they knew it.

Today, food insecurity that many Native Americans face is an outcome of the United States’ tortured history and has a significant impact on their health, longevity, and cultural sustainability. In addition, the isolation and poverty of some reservations has long been a growing problem. According to a Harvard University study, 39% of Native Americans live on reservations in the lower 48 states (not including Alaska); and as of the year 2000 the median household income of Native Americans on reservations was $24,239, which is only 58% of the average American median household income: $41,994.

This major economic disparity often forces those living on reservations to consume cheaper, faster foods with little to no nutritional value on a regular basis, leading Native people to obesity and other serious health complications. At 16.1%, Native Americans have the highest age adjusted rate of diabetes of any ethnic group in the United States; and according to a recent study 48% of Native children are overweight or obese. With childhood obesity comes an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, between 1994 and 2004 the number of Native adolescents (between ages 15-19 living on and off reservations) diagnosed with diabetes has risen to 68%.

The relationship between food insecurity and obesity may seem paradoxical, but they are in fact connected. The “coexistence of food insecurity and obesity is expected given that both are consequences of economic and social disadvantage.”

Fortunately, the First Nation Development Institute has created the Native Agriculture & Food Systems Initiative to help Native Americans regain power of their health and traditional food practices.

Video: First Nations Development Institute

They’ve also partnered with other organizations like Native Seeds and Indigenous Food Systems Network to help educate their people and the rest of the United States about the problems surrounding Native food insecurity.

What you can do to help:

  • Share this blog on social media to help educate others about these issues.
  • Visit any of these organization’s websites and continue to educate yourself on Native American food insecurity. Then spread the word.
  • Join an initiative and keep learning how the US Government and the tribes can not just coexist, but help each other thrive.


“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” 

– James Beard


Post by Jessica A. Bibby – Research Fellow