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Reframing food security by and for Native American communities: a case study among tribes in the Klamath River basin of Oregon and California

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Native Americans make up less than 2% of the population of the USA, but suffer from some of the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, diet-related diseases, and other socioeconomic challenges. This study examined unique attributes of food security in Native American communities in the Klamath River Basin of southern Oregon and northern California to generate a more comprehensive and culturally relevant understanding of Native American food insecurity. Through an in-depth case study among the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath Tribes, in which access to native foods was a central focus, our study examined the experience of food insecurity among tribal members, as well as barriers to and opportunities for building a more healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food system. We found extremely high rates of food insecurity in participant households, greater than that documented in previous studies of food insecurity in tribal and non-tribal communities in the USA. Additionally, we found that the majority of study participants lacked access to desired native foods, due to reduced availability from restrictive laws and habitat degradation under settler colonialism, and that limited access to native foods is a strong predictor of food insecurity. There is a strong demand for increased access to and consumption of native foods and Native communities are actively engaged in eco-cultural restoration activities to enhance their cultural foodways. To understand contributions and solutions to food insecurity in Native communities, we examined predictors of food security and native foods security and provide new insights into the relationship between these two categories. Results from our study suggest the need to expand the way in which food security is defined and measured in Native American communities, and in indigenous communities more broadly, incorporating more culturally relevant measures, while simultaneously calling for policy change to address the historical underpinnings of contemporary food insecurity among indigenous peoples. Our findings contribute to the growing literature on the value and importance of Native food systems in revitalizing culture and restoring community health and well-being among Native American communities, as well as sovereignty over their food systems.

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  1. Native foods are those of historical and cultural significance to Native Americans that have provided sustenance for thousands of years and tend to be acquired through non-market mechanisms, the physical connection to the landscape, and/or a culturally appropriate social networks. Non-traditional or conventional foods refer to market-based or store-bought foods inclusive of agribusiness products designed for global consumption, and foods not traditionally consumed by Native American communities such as dairy products, refined sugars and flours and heavily processed foods that are often more affordable but of lesser nutritional quality and more readily available.

  2. Throughout this paper, we use the terms Klamath River Basin and the Basin interchangeably to reference our study region.

  3. While there are other widely cited definitions of food security, including the one established at the World Food Summit in 1996, we cite the USDA definition as we are engaging with USDA measurements and evaluation of food security that are used in the context of food security in the USA, the country of our study.

  4. An abbreviated version of the core module consisting of a 6-questions was also developed (Bickel et al. 2000).

  5. The initial measurement of food security and hunger in the USA started in 1995 with the first Food Security Supplement to the Current Population Survey implemented by the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRR) (Public Law 101–445). This Act included a ten-year comprehensive plan for the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Program, directing the USDA and Health and Human Services to define and measure food security (Cohen 2002). The Federal Food Security Measurement Project, a collaboration among Federal agencies, academics, and commercial and non-profit organizations, developed the HFSSM and standardized food security measurement over several years of testing and developing measurement tools with annual food security surveys. Previously, there was minimal consensus on nationwide hunger and food (in)security trends with several varying estimates but no hard, reliable data to concur national trends of food (in)security and nutrition (National Research Council 2005, 2006).

  6. The report does disaggregate data by race but only for Black and Hispanic populations. In a recent study, using the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement, Jernigan et al. (2017) analyzed the food insecurity trends of Native Americans compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the USA from 2000 to 2010.

  7. In their study evaluating food insecurity among California households at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, Jernigan et al. (2013) found that prevalence of food insecurity was similar among Native Americans and Whites (38.7% vs 39.3%).

  8. The Klamath Tribes today consist of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin Tribes.

  9. Oregon is consistently one of the most food insecure states in the nation with rates of food insecurity higher than the national average and the highest rates of hunger in the late twentieth century. In 2016, Native American rates of food insecurity in Oregon were about twice the state average (O’Donnell-King and Newell-Ching 2017).

  10. The Karuk-UC Berkeley collaborative, established in 2007, seeks to support the Karuk Tribe in their eco-cultural restoration efforts, youth development, and sovereignty over their knowledge and cultural resources (

  11. Food system stakeholders and experts include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, local NGOs, school lunch programs, Tribal TANF, Tribal environmental programs, Cultural Heritage Officers, local food vendors, local food distributors, food assistance programs, local community and school gardens, and local health clinics.

  12. Based on delivered surveys, we had a 19.8% response rate.

  13. Low food security households may report that they rarely have access to healthy foods, run out of money for groceries several times a year, depend on food assistance and/or buy less expensive foods.

  14. About 21% of survey respondents said they use food assistance because native foods are not available.

  15. Indian termination was a policy of the USA from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s designed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream U.S. society by ending U.S. recognition of sovereignty of tribes. The intention was to terminate specific “Indian nations” by granting Native Americans all the rights and privileges of citizenship, reduce their dependence on a bureaucracy whose mismanagement had been well documented, and remove government trust responsibility to provide services for Native people (Wunder 1999). Overall 109 tribes were terminated between 1953 and 1958 (Wunder 1999), including the Klamath Tribes (the latter reinstated as a tribe in 1985). The policy was overturned, yet the damage was done. Even as many tribes fought to reclaim their sovereign status, much of their land base had been sold to private parties, and hundreds of tribes are still petitioning for federal recognition status today.

  16. For example, Mattz v. Arnett, 412 U.S. 481 (1973)- where the Supreme Court reaffirmed the continued existence of the Yurok land base and fishing rights and Kimball (tribal members) v. Callahan (Oregon State Game Commission members), 493 F.2d 564 (9th Cir. 1974) (Kimball I) and Kimball v. Callahan, 590 F.2d 768 (9th Cir. 1979) (Kimball II), where the Ninth Circuit held that the Klamath Tribe retained their treaty hunting, fishing, and trapping rights on the former Klamath Reservation as it existed at the time of termination (1954).

  17. The new report (First Nations Development Institute 2018b), notes that since NAFSI began in 2002, First Nations has awarded 307 grants totaling more than US$7.58 million to Native organizations dedicated to increasing food access and improving the health and nutrition of Native children and families. This number, however, pales in comparison to the more than 1450 requests received totaling more than US$49.7 million over that time, illustrating that a huge unmet need for funding for these types of projects continues in Native communities.


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This study was part of a 5-year collaborative research, extension and education project co-led by UC Berkeley, and the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath Tribes with support from the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture-Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Food Security Grant # 2012-68004-20018. Our research was made possible by invaluable contributions of project collaborators from the Karuk Tribe, Yurok Tribe, Hoopa Tribe, and Klamath Tribes in the development of the household survey and interview scripts, successful data collection with tribal members, oversight, interpretation of the results, and contributions to the recommendations presented in this study. We are also thankful to all those who participated in the household survey, focus groups, and interviews.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Sowerwine.

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All study procedures and ethical considerations for human subjects were approved by the University of California at Berkeley’s Ethics Review Board #2012–07- 4484 and each Tribe’s respective research review. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Specifically, informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study; all study participants remain anonymous with private and culturally sensitive information protected; and all tribal collaborators have had the opportunity to read and comment on this article prior to publication.

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The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

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Sowerwine, J., Mucioki, M., Sarna-Wojcicki, D. et al. Reframing food security by and for Native American communities: a case study among tribes in the Klamath River basin of Oregon and California. Food Sec. 11, 579–607 (2019).

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