Sovereignty Impaired: Tribal Food Security

October 3, 2013

By Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw), JD, LLM, Vena A-dae Romero (Cochiti/Kiowa), JD and Ross Racine (Blackfeet)

When defining “Tribal sovereignty,” the dialogue is always focused on the role of the federal government vis-à-vis the role of Tribal governments and how these two sovereign entities engage in the historic dance defined in federal statutory and case law. Despite some recognition of Tribal sovereignty in federal law, people cannot eat the pages of a law. The dialogue now needs to shift to focus on the resurgence of Indigenous food systems.

Due to the government shutdown, we are again reminded that Congress dominates the tempo of this long-standing dance, but without the government conductor (i.e., the executive branch) many Tribal people could go hungry despite the fact that feeding people is squarely within the protection of human health, safety and welfare, and within the specific language of our treaties.   The practical side of “Tribal Sovereignty” becomes more and more real when Tribes are faced with hungry children, elders and the most vulnerable that will be hurt without federal government food assistance programs.

According to Walking Shield Inc., over 22% of American Indians do not have enough food to meet their basic daily needs.  This is what is called being “food insecure.”  In South Dakota, where the poverty rate for American Indians is 50.9%, as identified by the latest U.S. Census data, the food insecurity rate is 27.8% as measured by “Map the Meal Gap” website. For children the statistics are higher. “Map the Meal Gap” measures the food insecure rate for children in three of the counties in South Dakota with the highest American Indian populations (Shannon, Todd, and Bennett counties) at an average of 37%, with the highest rate being Shannon County, SD at 39.7%.  The nationwide food insecurity average for American Indian adults is 1 in 4, meaning one in every four American Indians is food insecure, while one in three American Indian children are food insecure. The “Food Desert Locator” website at USDA places almost all reservation counties in “food deserts.”

The government food safety net as it was contemplated over 40 years ago, was created to catch the majority of the most vulnerable food insecure in our nation.  The USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women, Infant, and Children’s (WIC) Program, and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are the four most utilized food programs in American Indian communities.  In some cases, these four programs are the only existing food sources on some reservations.  Not surprisingly, the majority of FDPIR, SNAP, and WIC participants are the most vulnerable Tribal citizens, and include many of our elders, children, health-compromised individuals, disabled, and single-parent families.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, two-thirds of all SNAP recipients nationwide are children, elderly, or disabled.  According to First Nations Development Institute, SNAP participation rates are at 24% of the total Indian population compared to 13% participation rates of the general non-Indian population.  While SNAP will continue to function during a government shut down thanks to the 2009 Recovery Act through secured supplemental appropriations, other food programs will not.

The WIC numbers for American Indians are even more poignant. In 2010, there were over 1 million American Indian women and children on WIC (see:   The last available data that extracts American Indian specific data from national data was in 1998.  WIC participation has increased since then but the 1998 data remains the starting point for gauging Indian-specific impacts.   In 1998, 41.6% of Native American WIC enrollees received food assistance from the SNAP or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, compared to 26.6% of all non-Indian WIC enrollees.  The USDA states in its Nutrition Assistance Program Report: “Those on or near reservations also have greater participation in public assistance programs (24.6 versus 15.2 percent receive TANF; 39.4 versus 29.5 receive food assistance) and more severe poverty (41.4 versus 34.9 are below 50% of the federal poverty level).” (see,

FDPIR, which is available only to households living in Indian Country, served about 80,000 individuals per month in fiscal year 2011 based on USDA information.  Many American Indian families access FDPIR in order to meet gaps between food shortages and income. For some remote American Indian families, FDPIR keeps their families fed as SNAP benefits aren’t particularly helpful if you have no access to a grocery store to redeem the benefits.  While in school, many American Indian children receive food funded through the National School Lunch program.  Rural communities, like reservations, have the largest participation rates at 72% and over 68% of American Indian children participate in the school lunch program.

While Congressional representatives, federal government employees, and government service providers have prepared contingency plans in the event of a government shut down, Tribes and food program participants should also be preparing their own contingency plans to ensure they can feed themselves and their families.  Tribal governments may not be able to fill the gap.  The federal government shut down on 12:01 am on October 1, 2013, many federal programs that are meant to feed American Indian people will also shut down.  Although a government shut down is devastating, it’s a sobering reality for Tribes.

As we gauge our victories and defeats by Supreme Court rulings, perhaps a better gauge is how many Tribal people are hungry. The most important and final question we have to ask ourselves is this: “How are we, as Tribal governments and American Indian people preparing ourselves to feed ourselves in the future?” As we talk about sovereignty and take steps every day to protect our sovereignty, we absolutely must include time to discuss our food insecurity, resiliency of our Indigenous food systems, and how to feed the most vulnerable among us in times of crisis.  After all, it wasn’t too long ago that starvation was used to force tribes into submission.