Locally grown, globally recognized
An interview with Oneida food system leader Daniel Guzman-King about the nation’s past, present and future efforts to combat tribal food insecurity and sovereignty
By Xav Horkman
The Oneida Nation of Wisconsin received notable, international recognition for its efforts to combat food insecurity as well as reshape the tribe’s comprehensive food system.
This year, The United Nations released a report, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021,” where the local tribe was cited for its exemplary and successful Indigenous food security efforts among other global leaders.
According to the report, the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin is confronting food insecurity and malnutrition among its people—including high levels of diabetes and obesity resulting from excessive consumption of processed foods.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Native Americans (American Indians and Alaska Natives) have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other US racial group.
The United Nations report also recognized Oneida for its efforts to revitalize its beliefs, cosmogony and its relationship to local food systems.
“Furthermore, their intercultural and integrated approach to food within governance, policy, investment and community leadership has strengthened the food environment for the Oneida Nation, improved public health and reinforced intergenerational commitment to sustain their food systems,” the report stated.
Oneida Business Committee (OBC) Council Member Daniel Guzman-King said one of his primary duties is drafting legislation for the Oneida Nation. Guzman-King is a leader in Oneida’s food sovereignty and insecurity efforts, but he said he does not operate alone.
To ensure food system efforts are incorporating traditional and cultural elements into them, Guzman-King includes Bob Brown, Oneida Bear Clan chief and appointed spiritual leader, for his valuable input.
“It’s a lifetime role,” Guzman-King said, “and that’s an incredible role that (Brown) fills for this community. He’s dedicated his life to our nation, from a traditional and cultural perspective. He’s a government official of our official government. Just like I’m an elected official of this elected government.”
Brown knows and understands the culture, including ceremonies and protocols. His insight is a contribution to Oneida’s governmental activities to ensure there is a cultural perspective. He was also a contributor to the completion of a Proclamation of the Rights of Nature (a resolution that gives Nature its own set of rights), which was passed in October of this year.
An interwoven food system
Guzman-King said many of the most important issues facing the Oneida Nation are interconnected.
“For us in Oneida, we’re tying that link, we’re connecting those dots,” Guzman-King said. “We’re looking at it as one whole system, not separate systems. Other governments are looking at environmental systems separately, then they’re looking at food systems, then they’re looking at health care systems. It’s one system. They’re all the same.”
While Guzman-King was honored for the recognition of the Oneida Nation food system on such a global level, he knows that circumstances vary for Native American tribes.
According to the Census Bureau, Native Americans suffer from some of the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, diet-related diseases and other challenges due to historic and present day systematic and institutional inequities. One-of-four Indigenous people experience food insecurity compared to one-in-nine Americans.
According to the 2017 Oneida Community Health Assessment, 54% of respondents are considered obese with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more based on their reported heights and weights. According to the CDC, that same figure is just 42% in the United States.
“It’s hard to compare apples to apples when you’re looking at other tribes,” Guzman-King said, “every tribe is different. The size is different, the resources are different. We all have our own unique strengths and abilities. That includes personnel, knowledge, insight, experience, and funding. Those are all factors that play into how to push forward food sovereignty initiatives and strategy.”
Some of the most important aspects of Oneida’s food efforts come in the form of apples. Key elements of the Nation’s food system include Tsyunhehkwa (pronounced joon-hey-qwa), the Oneida Cannery, the Oneida Emergency Food Pantry and the Oneida Apple Orchard.
The Oneida Apple Orchard was purchased in 1994 as part of Oneida’s continuing strategy of reacquiring lands within the original boundaries of the reservation. The Apple Orchard has 30 acres of original orchard and an additional 10 acres of new orchard, composing a rough total of 4,000 trees. The majority of the apples are McIntosh, Cortlands and Honey Golds with 20 other varieties also available. The land also produces a variety of seasonal produce including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, sweetcorn, squash and pumpkins.
Oneida Business Committee (OBC) Council Member Daniel Guzman-King works closely with the Nation’s food systems.
Photo courtesy of Oneida Nation
The Oneida Emergency Food Pantry opened its doors in January 2017 to service community members in need of emergency food help. The pantry holds various events throughout the year, including food drives, planting events, holiday distribution, and nutrition education classes. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pantry has held 32 drive-thru food box giveaways. The pantry distributed 3,830 food packages, containing over 176,000 pounds of food, to Oneida households in 2020.
Tsyunhehkwa is a community project that focuses on culturally relevant agriculture and food processing procedures. The agricultural component is located on a certified organic 80-acre site, which provides grass-fed beef, free-range poultry, farm-fresh eggs and organic produce. The other element is a cannery that processes Oneida Nation’s products, but also other items produced by members of the tribe and the community at large.
Guzman-King said one of the highlights of the Oneida food system is the slow but sure way it has taken to get to the point of global recognition.
“It’s not something that I think happens overnight,” Guzman-King said. “It’s not something that is only because of the work that we’ve just done, even though we have recently done a lot of significant work internally. For so long, we’ve always had all the pieces to the puzzle, the food sovereignty puzzle. The pieces were all scattered, and all we had to do was put it together. Since the onset of COVID, we’ve put those pieces together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on food security for Oneida tribal members. As a result of the emergent need, Oneida put together a food security team, composed of management members from a variety of departments, including the cannery, food distribution, the food pantry, retail, conservation, and environmental departments. Guzman-King spearheaded the initiative as the organizing leader of the team.
“We were meeting weekly, getting updates and reports on production, distributing, and service numbers, “Guzman-King said. “In January (2021), we shifted focus to strategy development. One of the key points was how we can create better access to healthy food for our tribal members and our community.”
One overarching strategy was developed through extended interactions with all the related departments of the Oneida food system. The strategy was officially adopted by the OBC through resolution in September of this year. The resolution was titled “Support of Food Sovereignty and Food Sovereignty Policy.” The resolution fulfilled a long-standing desire of the OBC.
“It was kind of a big deal because the Oneida Business Committee has been asking for an agriculture strategy for years,” Guzman-King said. “That was one of the first things when I first got onto council over four years ago. The demand was there for it. COVID elevated the need for food security.”
The Seventh Generation
Creating a strong sense of food security and sovereignty reflects a foundational guiding principle for the Oneida Nation. The tribe operates under a philosophy that aligns well with the contemporary concept of sustainability.
Guzman-King said one of the old teachings of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy—known as the Seventh Generation philosophy—is “when you sit in council for the people, think not of yourself, nor your family, nor this generation.”
“I try to do that as much as I can,” Guzman-King said. “To me, that’s the essence of how we should be functioning and making our decisions, our policies and our financial decisions.”
The Seventh Generation philosophy is one that is near common knowledge among Oneida tribal members, and Guzman-King said he does his best to implement it into the contemporary circumstances of the Oneida Nation.
Grass-fed beef is one part of Tsyunhehkwa Agriculture’s food system puzzle.
Photo courtesy of Oneida Nation
“The Seventh Generation philosophy is thinking about that generation that you have yet to see and yet to know, and how is your decision today going to affect them,” Guzman-King said. “I try to put it in a better perspective for people, because when most people think of seventh generation, they think of some distant time in the future. But in reality, when this philosophy was given, it was only about 120 years. Which is just beyond one person’s lifespan. So, when they talked about the Seventh Generation, they talked about that generation that’s about to come as I’m about to die. So that’s not a long timeframe.”
Guzman-King said he constantly works to incorporate the Seventh Generations philosophy into Oneida’s food sovereignty and insecurity efforts.
“I try to continue to push that forward because right now in our society, we’re always worried about right here and right now,” Guzman-King said. “But if we were following our cultural and traditional values and teaching, we wouldn’t be worried about ourselves, we wouldn’t be worried about this generation or the next generation. We’d be worried about the seventh generation. And we have a long way to go in that.”
Xav Horkman is an artist and freelance writer currently operating in the Green Bay area. His writing includes, but is not limited to, environmental and Native American topics. You can read more of his writing at iffybrass.com and patreon.com/xavhorkman. You can also follow him on Instagram @iffybrass and @xavhorkman.