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Why Harvesting Wild Game Should be Emphasized More in Food Sovereignty Discussion
~ Chase Voirin
As I attend various conferences, meetings,
and symposiums I hear the term “food sovereignty”
more and more often when talking about
empowering Native American people, and it
tends to be used hand-in-hand with “tribal sovereignty”.
It’s no wonder more discussion surrounding what we eat have become more commonplace in current years with the increased use of genetically-modified food and generally poor American fast-food diet. Much of the said diet has been the main cause of some of the most significant detrimental issues to Native American peoples’ health. According to Wikipedia, food sovereignty “asserts that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than the corporations and market institutions they believe have come to dominate the global food system” . While I’m always skeptical of Wikipedia resources, that definition seems to encompass most of the awareness food sovereignty advocates seem to bring to the public’s attention. However, much of the information surrounding food sovereignty among Indigenous peoples lies within traditional herbs and crops that can either be collected from nature or grown by hand. Indeed, Native American tribes had a diverse array of crops that were well-adapted to local climates and ecosystems and of which were endemic to that home area. These crops became such a main staple for many Indigenous Americans that those consumed plant species carried a sense of holiness and significance in tribal culture. But as a wildlife biologist and hunter, I feel that another source of food that has been harvested and consumed by Native peoples for centuries often is overlooked, or not discussed at length, when talking about food sovereignty. I find this both fascinating and inspiring in that I believe that wild game should be discussed more at the forefront of both tribal sovereignty and food sovereignty. There are several reasons wild game should be taken into greater consideration and discussed at further length when discussing sovereignty issues among tribes, and if those reasons are investigated, many tribes may find some of the greatest sense of empowerment for both cultural and physical wellbeing that would compliment the strengthening of sovereignty generated through local crop propagation efforts.
One of the main questions I ask myself is why people don’t talk about hunting more in food sovereignty issues? And after years of both academic research and training in wildlife conservation, as well as working with my tribe’s (Navajo) fish and wildlife department, I believe many people do not know how to hunt. Indeed, the surveys indicate the number of Americans who hunt is declining and is moving to an older hunting demographic (USFWS 2017). This may be mirrored among Native tribes in that our younger Indigenous generation is not learning how to hunt due to some of the same electronic distractions and entertainment that many non-Native kids are caught up in, along with the older generation not passing those skills down. During my employment with the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife (NNDFW) we would take a group of approximately 20 kids who came from homes where a parent or guardian was unable to take them hunting, and we guided them all on a deer hunt. For many kids this was their first time even camping and hiking in the outdoors, and their excitement and enjoyment of the experience always inspired employees to continue this hunt into the next year.
Another reason why hunting may not be discussed more in tribal food sovereignty issues is that hunting and wildlife may not be as popular in current traditions and culture. While there is no doubt as to the importance of wildlife among most all Native cultures and origin stories, much of the knowledge of how those specific animal species fit into the culture is being lost. This in turn affects the harvest of those species, including wild game, in that people may not know or remember their traditional practices and diets that included those species and therefore there is less of a need to harvest them. When I worked among my tribe, I was sadly not too shocked to find out kids did not know much about the general biology of the wildlife species that lived all around them, even in rural areas where wild game was somewhat plentiful and close by. This lack of biological education is similar to what we see among non-Native kids off the reservation, and it ultimately affects how many of those kids take up hunting or find the interest to explore the outdoors.
Possibly the most major reason why hunting is not discussed more in tribal food sovereignty is because people simply don’t rely on wild game food sources anymore. As with most citizens of America, Natives are given many more reliable options to choose from to compose their diet, and unfortunately, many of those options are not healthy. America’s fast-food and commodity food culture has spilled onto reservations, and has been a catalyst for many tribal health issues such as obesity and malnutrition. It is admittedly hard, and sometimes expensive, to learn how to hunt if it is not passed down to you, and it can be difficult to appreciate harvested game meat over a delicious burger or steak that you can buy at the store. And it can be just as difficult to learn how to hunt and process harvested meat over purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables that benefit food sovereignty. Nonetheless, these choices in diet, as well as the lost knowledge of traditional diet, has made it difficult to continue the practice of harvesting wild game.
Another reason the practice of hunting may be lacking in the development of tribal food sovereignty is due to challenges to establish hunting programs among tribal governments. This may be due to multiple reasons including, but not limited to, the size of the reservation, the wild game populations residing on those reservations, and the traditional/historical use of those wild game species that reside there. Most of the tribes I worked with in the Southwest had large reservations with plenty of wild game and tribal members who hunted, and they had established sound wildlife conservation practices and hunting regulations for those species. But many tribes have not established this structure, or their programs are in their infancy.
So why should hunting be more included in discussions pertaining to food sovereignty? Many reasons include, but are not limited to, the fact that it would increase outdoor exposure among people, especially younger generations, which may lead to greater mental and physical health. The physical act of hunting may increase education about one’s quarry and its niche within the local ecosystem, as well as knowledge about other species of wild plants and animals. Another reason is that wild game is simply more nutritious than conventional, store-bought meat in that it generally has higher concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids, is leaner, lower in cholesterol, and does not contain steroids, antibiotics and other additives that may cause health concerns among the public (D’Amato et al. 2013). The health benefits of wild game may mitigate some of the current health issues that stem from current diets of many tribes. Another reason hunting should be included more in food sovereignty discussions is that tribes can empower their legal sovereignty for the wildlife that reside on their reservations, and in some cases adjacent to their lands, by establishing hunting programs. Tribal natural resource departments could not only promote hunting as a recreational opportunity for its members and financial gain for the tribal government, but also prove to non-tribal entities that they know how to manage their wildlife with traditional and current conservation practices. Lastly, hunting is a cultural practice for many tribes in and of itself. This practice has taken place just as long, if not longer, as crops have been produced and harvested. Hunting is a traditional/cultural practice that Native tribes should take pride in, and it carries many benefits including reconnecting people to nature and the outdoors and reestablishing an appreciation for our wild ancestors that are still a part of mother nature. To hunt, harvest and consume wild game is arguably the epitome of practicing food sovereignty for Native Americans.
Food sovereignty. (4 December 2017). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on
5 December 2017. Available at
D’Amato, M.E., E. Alechine, K.W. Cloete, S. Davison, and D. Corach. 2013. Where is the
game? Wild meat products authentication in South Africa: a case study. Investigative genetics 4(1):6.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2017. New 5-Year Report Shows 101.6 Million
Americans Participated in Hunting, Fish and & Wildlife Activities. Released on 7 September 2017. Retrieved on 4 December 2017. Available at https://www.fws.gov/news/ShowNews.cfm?ref=new%C2%A05-year-report-shows-101.6-million-americans-participated-in-hunting-&_ID=36136