For this unique two-part Q&A, the UC Food Observer sought out Janie Simms Hipp, an expert in Native food and agriculture issues. Read part 2.
Janie Simms Hipp, J.D., LL.M. is the founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, the nation’s first law school-based initiative focusing on tribal governance, strategic technical policy assistance and Native youth and professional education supporting Native food systems. Janie is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.
I first met Janie at a W.K. Kellogg Foundation gathering a number of years ago and have followed her work with great interest. Most recently I caught up with her at Farm Aid, in Chicago. Janie’s work is deeply rooted in food and agricultural issues. Before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas’ law school, she served as Senior Advisor for Tribal Relations to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Director of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations at USDA. She also served within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) as National Program Leader for Farm Financial Management, Risk Management Education, Trade Adjustment Assistance and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Janie graduated from the University of Oklahoma (BA), Oklahoma City University (JD), and University of Arkansas School of Law (LLM, Agriculture and Food Law). She has been licensed as an attorney in Oklahoma for over 30 years. She has been honored as Distinguished Alumni of the University of Arkansas (2014) and the American Agricultural Law Association, Excellence in Agricultural Law awards. She has worked internationally, domestically and throughout Indian Country on issues related to food systems development, economic development in food and agriculture, rural resiliency, business development in food and agriculture and policy issues related to all aspects of food and agriculture.
About the the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law…it is the only law school-based initiative focused solely on the support, development and sustainability of indigenous food systems through policy analysis and advocacy, tribal self-governance and self- determination, professional and youth development and related efforts necessary to ensure long-term viability and improvement in access to food and food security and improved health and wellness in Native communities.
Q: We’re excited to have an opportunity to begin this conversation with you.
Janie: It’s a rich conversation and an important history. Most Americans don’t fully grasp or have awareness of the rich and important history of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians in relation to food and food systems. Food and food production in Indian Country is so fundamentally important to our communities’ health, well-being, vitality, resiliency, and cultural preservation. “Food” is experiencing what I would almost call a renaissance. It’s always been out there but most often ignored, thought lesser than or considered unimportant. It’s not unimportant to the country. Food production on Indian lands – and its ability to turn our communities’ health and resilience around – is huge. Our relationships with food can be a complicated history and conversation to explore, but it also is so vibrant and amazing.
Q: What is Indian Country agriculture?
In order to get a picture of present-day agriculture in Indian Country, a good place to start is the USDA Census of Agriculture. The USDA conducts and publishes a Census of Agriculture every five years. At one time in this census, the Navajo Nation was incorrectly counted as one farmer. Most tribal governments did not have good agriculture census numbers at their fingertips but much work has occurred – particularly in the last 15 years – in accurately counting the presence of Indian Country in food and agriculture. What has been realized is something we in Indian Country have known all along: we play a significant and growing role in the history and current and future vitality of food and agriculture in the United States. Our numbers are significant and growing. However, today, farmers and ranchers in Indian Country are on average four years older than their white counterparts and the entire farming and ranching population in the U.S. is aging rapidly.
I’m sixty years old. The last federal policy of relocation of Indian peoples happened in my lifetime. This federal policy of displacement has impacted who is farming today on Tribal lands. Federal policy literally broke up Indian families, removed them from the land provided them under treaties with the U.S. and relocated many of them most recently to urban centers. As a result, may tribes have significant efforts under way every day to connect with their relatives and tribal citizens that are located in large urban centers such as Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Dallas and beyond.
Q: How did you get started on your career path?
Janie: I am a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. I grew up in a time in Oklahoma when tribal governments were not as self-sufficient or self-governing as they are today. I always have to remind myself that the success and growth in resilience and self- sufficiency of my own tribe and others was not the way it was when I was growing up.
When I was growing up in Oklahoma, even our Oklahoma civics books hac very little about the history of individual tribes or of Indian Country. Yet Indian Territory (which later became Oklahoma Territory and then led to the state of Oklahoma) was the removal location for a substantial number of tribes. I still keep a map on my wall so I can remind myself where Indian Country is and how expansive we are.
But having said that, I started my work in food and agriculture back in the 1980s. It was a very tumultuous time in agriculture writ large. This time period was considered the “farm financial crisis of the 1980s” and is taught as part of our nation’s agriculture history as such. The agriculture economy went down the tubes, land values went through the roof, interest rates were very high and the banking sector and energy sector were under strain. I remember buying our first home in Oklahoma and the best interest rate we could find was 18%. Everything was out of kilter.. Because agriculture and family farmers are impacted financially by land values, access to credit, interest rates and other related issues, all farmers and ranchers were suffering mightily. In fact, the suicide rate was very high in rural American at that time and Oklahoma had the highest suicide rate of all.
I was a new “baby” lawyer, just out of law school. I went into the private practice representing the commercial sector but then went into the Attorney General’s (AG) office in Oklahoma. I worked for one of the youngest AGs in the country and I must say one of the most progressive. The Attorney General at the time was part of a group of AGs around the nation that were so deeply concerned about what was happening to farmers and ranchers in their states that they put together a working group of AGs to do what they could to address the high number of farm foreclosures, at that time predominately brought by the federal government.
Many “farm belt” and Midwest and Upper Midwest states were involved, but there were also representatives from states such as New York and Massachusetts, Florida, California and elsewhere because food production occurs throughout the country. Our Oklahoma Attorney General sent me to a meeting of that group in Minnesota in the winter (the cold about killed me). And that first meeting was so impactful not only to the effectiveness of our work in Oklahoma, but to my development as a lawyer and unbeknownst to me, to my entire career.
This meeting was at the beginning of what would become a lifelong professional journey. We were trying to put a finger in the dike in Oklahoma to keep people on the land and prevent suicides and keep people farming and ranching. Grown men and women would come to my office crying. These were Oklahoma farmers. I was sympathetic to their plight…but I also understood that the land was someone else’s before it belonged to them.
I saw the incredible parallels between Indian Country’s loss of land and the profound trauma that comes with that and the 1980s farm crisis centuries after tribes began losing their lands to new European inhabitants of North America. And Indian Country (see the map) was just as affected by this farm crisis as other areas of the country – but even more so because of our remoteness and our general lack of access to resources. So, not only did my work in food and agriculture begin during this period, but so did my work in Indian Country food and agriculture.
Q: You mentioned that some states that we’d consider mostly urban were involved in that working group?
Janie: Yes. An important thing for people to realize is that agriculture is embedded in each state’s economy; even in the most urbanized states. In fact, agriculture is often among the top 3 GDP [gross domestic product] of many states. This is real, even today.
Everyone today is a “foodie” and we can get all excited about our food, but most still don’t understand that the farmer and rancher have the hardest job on the planet. Producers have to withstand weather and manage risks in producing the food that we all eat in a way that no one else has to do in their profession. They are considered price takers and are seldom able to set their prices at a level that actually captures the true costs of production of that food, or the true cost of their own labor in producing food. Even today with so many food shows on TV and so much talk about food, most citizens still have no earthly idea the complexity of being engaged in food production or the food sector and have little appreciation of the sacrifices and risks those folks take on our behalf every day.
Q: You’ve been concerned for a long time about sustainable agriculture.
Janie: Yes. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, sustainable agriculture as a new policy focus was standing itself up not just here in the U.S. but around the world. My thesis for the LLM (Master of Laws) program was actually about sustainable agriculture policy. Although my thesis was not about tribes per se, I began having a fundamental concern: where are the tribes in this picture? I was and am so proud of my tribe and what we were doing. We have been successful in creating a diversified economic base and in improving the delivery of services to our people. Every tribal government and communities’ story is different.
Our stories are grounded by our location, our history, our natural resources, our traditions and cultures. Every tribe has their own history in food, and those histories are not always the same. Most people don’t realize that many of the foods we eat today were already here upon European contact. Many tribes had large food production systems in place prior to European contact. Our deep involvement in food, food production and food sustainability was intimately interwoven into our stories, our traditions, our trade with others and our health and well being as communities.
Q: What about urban agriculture and Tribal Nations?
Janie: Many American Indians live in urban settings due to federal relocation policies. These families are many times strongly linked to “home” and often go back to their home communities for ceremonies and maintaining connections with the traditions and cultures of their tribes. If we can strengthen the food bonds between urban Indian communities and reservation, rural and remote Indian communities and families, we can also improve the nutrition and health of both.
The land base of Indian Country is primarily in rural and remote places. There is a significant, contiguous land base away from urban land centers. The USDA Agriculture Census data for Arizona, for instance, shows that of 26 million acres of agricultural land in Arizona, 20 million of those acres are under direct or indirect Tribal control. That is not unusual. The land base is who we are: our culture and traditions are here. It’s where medicinals are found. We have an ability to keep our oldest traditional foods alive in these areas, in my opinion. We need to have a footprint in both urban and rural and remote places. Food production and food systems needs to be encompassing of our urban dweller cousins as well.
Q: What big change would you make if you could?
Janie: At the end of the day the magic wand is within the grasp of our own tribal governments. I’m a staunch believer that our tribal governments – if they are in the driver’s seat and if our communities support them – will make the right and best decisions for our land and our people. Individual people can be sovereign and strong in improving their own access to better food but in order to ensure the entire community is lifted up, the tribal government needs to be involved. And that includes in our food and agricultural production, which impacts our health and our economy.
The more we truly empower and support tribal governments in strengthening the governance systems and structures that support our communities the better off our food systems will be in Indian Country.
Food sovereignty is deeply connected to resilience of communities.
In part two of this Q&A, Janie discusses the unique and vitally important work being done via the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. You won’t want to miss it!