Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas

Date: August 2, 2019
Interviewer: Meghan Jernigan, Headwater People
Interviewee: Colby Duren, JD (Chickasaw Nation), Director

Quick Stats about the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative:
The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative was founded in 2013 and encompasses multi-disciplinary research, service, and education opportunities.

The Initiative is the first of its kind nationally, with the following goals and objectives:

  • To increase student enrollment in the land grant universities in food and agricultural related disciplines by supporting existing students and creating early pipeline programs for youth;
  • To create new academic and executive education programs in food and agriculture, including law, policy, and tribal governance;
  • To directly support Indian country by providing strategic planning and technical assistance, including research and publications in the following subject areas:
    • Tribal Governance Infrastructure to Enhance Business and Economic Development Opportunities
    • Financial Markets and Asset Management, including Banking, Risk Management, and Stewardship of Land and Natural Resources
    • Health and Nutrition Policy for Tribal Community Wellness
    • Intellectual Property Rights and Protection of Traditional Knowledge

The initiative enhances health and wellness in tribal communities by advancing healthy food systems, diversified economic development and cultural food traditions in Indian country. We empower tribal governments, farmers, ranchers and food businesses by providing strategic planning and technical
assistance; by creating new academic and professional executive education programs in food systems and agriculture; and by increasing student enrollment in land grant universities in food and agricultural related disciplines.

Key Considerations:
The work of IFAI is about really putting the tribal sovereignty in food sovereignty. Sovereignty has a very specific and special meaning within Indian country. Taking a tribal self-governance and self-determination approach to supporting tribal citizens' endeavors regarding food and agriculture is a very complex process.
As sovereigns, tribes have a direct relationship with the federal government. States, within which tribes reside often try to exert their jurisdiction in places where there's either absence of federal jurisdiction or tribal jurisdiction or even in cases where there is existing tribal jurisdiction or federal jurisdiction.

When these dynamics are acting, have to have a strong understanding of regulating and the laws in place. Being able to have a good understanding of both federal Indian law and in agriculture law and how that applies to build a food system is critically important.

In December 2018, IFAI released a model tribal food and agriculture code as starting point for tribes to develop what they would like to do within food and agriculture and the offer of an entry place of where to go, what to be able to do, and what are some of the next steps that they would have to take.

Strengths, Keys for Success:
Everything that IFAI does is driven by of and focusing on what can be done and how can they help tribes, tribal governments, tribal food producers, and tribal citizens. Their goal is to be able to support what they're looking to be able to do to help build their food systems, food economy and to support their traditions. They start with a focus of asking tribes what are things that they can do within their areas of expertise to be able to help them do what they want to do.

IFAI has an incredible team of people that have a strong amount of experience being able to do this work. From their founding director, Janie Hipp, our vice chancellor, Vice Chancellor Leeds, our research director, Erin Parker, Blake Jackson, our policy officer, Whitney Sawney, our communications director, Nikki Young, our travel coordinator. Their strong and dedicated team is really committed to the work and the tribes and individuals that they serve.

IFAI’s technical and legal expertise allows them to support tribal development of regulations and regulatory agencies to creating a department of agriculture to managing water and natural resources, to conservation components, to traditional foods and seeds protection components.

IFAI has also been an instrumental part of creating the Native Farm Bill Coalition which has over 170 tribes represented in it and the Regaining our Future report for which 78 individual tribes passed letters or resolutions of support. These efforts have had large scale impacts on the 2018 Farm Bill and over 63 tribal-specific changes to the bill over all.

Using the law to address tribal concerns that touch different governments and many parties requires the ability to stitch those interests together and to be able to weave in what are some of the things that are important to all folks is a powerful skill that the IFAI team has been able to practice.

Barriers and Challenges:
Climate change is something that is impacting all of agriculture's ability to be able to sometimes look at what that long-term sustainability is. Especially within Indian country where there have been barriers to access to conservation programs and funding as other lands might have had. These are places that might be in a more degradated stance than others might be, so the impacts of climate change are going to be just that much more drastic than they would be otherwise.

Primary Funding:
Since the University of Arkansas funded the initial start to the Initiative, the have been entirely grant funded and soft money funded and funded on donations and gifts and mostly grants.

Insights for others:
Even though private foundation giving in grants within Indian country is such a small, small, small percentage, but being able to even move that forward just a little bit and to be able to have a way for private foundations to see what's going on would be a great step. For funders to see what the need is and how exciting the opportunities are, will hopefully speak volumes.