Above: Julie Noreene Bautista, 28th Class Emerson Fellow.
During my last semester of college I interned for the Congress of Nations and States, a newly established international organization where Indigenous Nations and State governments participate in dialogue on an equal political plane. My first task was to complete a cultural connections analysis in which I dug deeper into my Filipino heritage and recognized my Indigeneity or connection to my land. This was for the purpose of realizing that although I do not identify as Indigenous, I am not separate from the discussion or the goal of the Congress.
Growing up, when I would go outside to play with my cousins in the rural areas of the Philippines, my mom used to remind me to say “tabi tabi po.” This translates to excuse me or may I pass? which acknowledges the spirits that live in the trees, grass, or bushland. This expresses the relationship between Filipinos and nature and their regard of themselves as mere co-inhabitants of the land, along with other living beings. Without paying respect to nature, the spirits may inflict illnesses upon you, and you would have to pay a visit to the “manghihilot.” “Manghihilot” translates to a massager, but they are so much more than that. They are elderly healers that are associated with an indigenous Filipino healing practice that manipulates body energy, which is believed to be dependent on a man’s lifestyle and environment. When limitations are violated, imbalances happen in one’s body which causes sickness.
It occurred to me that the cultural practice of “tabi tabi po” upholds the principle that we are all interconnected in our energies, and that humans do not have exclusive dominion over the land or nature. Even if one doesn’t believe that spirits exist, scientifically and historically, when we exploit the land it leads to negative impacts on our way of life such as pollution and climate change, which then impacts our health. The internship led me to become interested in environmental justice, the concept of land liberation, and how this could be a sustainable approach for food security and justice.
When, as an Emerson Fellow, I was placed with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I knew that forces in my experiences led me here and my knowledge and interest in this area would grow profoundly. IFAI’s mission is to enhance health and wellness in Tribal communities by advancing and advocating for the maintenance of cultural food and traditions, healthy food systems, and diversified economic development in Indian Country. I am currently creating educational resources for the 638 authority, a self-governance contract that allows Tribes to fully manage federal programs and the budget allocated to them in order to better serve their communities. The 638 authority has recently been applied to the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which provides U,S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) foods to income-eligible households living on reservations. The educational resources that I am creating for IFAI help Tribal leaders navigate the policy realm and provide legislative support for Tribal code development in food sovereignty and self-governance advocacy.
I am also learning about the Agriculture Management Plan, project that my field site partner, Jalen Banks, is working on. While Native Americans have millions of acres of land, the very foods they raise and grow on their lands do not stay within their communities to feed their people, which results in hunger and poverty in reservations. I have learned that there are several agriculture policy barriers and financial structures, such as predatory lending, which hinder the success of Indigenous people in producing food in their own land. Due to these barriers and structures, Native Americans cannot feed their own people, and the current system leaves them with no choice but to lease their land to corporations, who exploit it and promote mass production. Environmental crises, hunger, and poverty are interrelated issues and are caused by a system that only values individual property rights and profit accumulation, or capitalism.
Providing a means for Native Americans to reclaim sovereignty over their lands is an effective solution not only for alleviating hunger and poverty on reservations, but for paving the path for environmental justice. They are the stewards of the land who possess great Tribal knowledge of the ecosystem and how to correctly support biodiversity. Once we start giving these groups the rights that they deserve, we are not only illuminating their experiences but also creating lasting solutions to societal problems.
Kesley Scott, a Lakota producer from the Cheyenne Sioux River, says that a regenerative economy “must be supported by the outside community but through the lens of the affected community.” In a broader context, we must recognize the principle that in order to create a lasting solution to a societal problem such as hunger and poverty, the movement must be led by leaders with firsthand experience of these adversities. The 638 authority empowers Tribal leaders, who are the experts of the sufferings of their own communities, to take over the management of certain programs and create sustainable solutions to the root causes of hunger and poverty on reservations. Implementation of the 638 “self-determination” contract in federal programs under USDA supports the right of Native Americans to not only control their own activities and use federal financial resources to improve their food security, but also allows them to reclaim Indigenous food systems and uphold important principles of respectful land use.
Empathetic leadership strongly resonates with me, as it reaffirms my interconnectedness belief and allows me to realize that the negative environmental effects which cause hunger and poverty on reservations also affect me as an individual in a broader context. Through this experience, I have learned the ability to understand the contexts and experiences of others, and to live and experience their stories as if it were my own. My work at IFAI has exposed me to Indigenous producers and people who are suffering the most from the consequences of climate change and capitalism. I recognize that this experience is not unique to the United States, but is experienced by all Indigenous people around the world. Culturally, their relationship with the environment is integral to their survival, and frankly, it is time for us to realize that our relationship with the environment is integral to our survival as well.