"Our Food, Our Way of Life, Our Four-Legged Relative: The Buffalo"Why is Cankú Lúta Conducting Food Drives for Indian Communities?
With the support of numerous organizations and individuals, Cankú Lúta has helped to distribute over 50,000 lbs. of food to Indian communities in South Dakota and Montana within the last year. You may be wondering why. The reality is that a sizable proportion of the Indian population living in Indian territories in South Dakota and Montana is going hungry.
The reasons for this are many, but the root cause, no doubt, is the fact that the European invasion and conquest of the Americas resulted in the massive physical and cultural destruction of whole Indian nations and the accompanying theft of their land. It also resulted in the wholesale slaughter of buffalo (thought to have numbered as many as 60 million before the invasion of whites into the region) and opening up of a brisk market in buffalo hides and tongues. The buffalo was the Indians four-legged relative; their source of food, clothing, shelter and spiritual sustenance. The extermination of the buffalo meant that Indian nations could no longer provide for even their most basic needs and they were thus forced to depend on U.S. government provisions.
In cases where land was ceded through treaties, the U.S. government offered to provide material support as compensation for the loss of hunting and gathering grounds. These treaty obligations were rarely kept; instead many corrupt BIA agents used the rations for their own gain and rations were frequently withheld to force the surviving Indians to give up more land (Indians call this policy "sell and starve"). Much of the reservation land was, and still is, leased to white ranchers, while most Indian owners hold small and scattered plots, too small to be used efficiently. The money Indian owners are supposed to receive for leasing the land was supposed to be held in trust for them by the U.S. governments Bureau of Indian Affairs. Two years ago, it was revealed that some $2 billion of this money is unaccounted for!
Over time, the treaty obligations have been unilaterally changed by U.S. government lawmakers to mean welfare benefits. The recipients of the latter, as we all know, have been stigmatized by thoroughly demeaning, frequently racist, stereotypes as people who are leeching off of good hardworking taxpayers or who are lazy welfare queens who steal from the government. This has put tens of thousands of Indians in the impossible situation of either having to receive these degrading forms of U.S. government handouts or being forced to live on practically nothing - on too little land with few resources and few, if any, jobs.
FDPIR, or the so called commodities program was instituted by the U.S. government in 1977 because the Food Stamp program did not work very well on Indian reservations. Many households live too far from government offices which administer the food stamp program, there are too few stores on reservations which redeem food stamps, and many households live too far from the stores that do accept food stamps. FDPIR is administered either by Indian Tribal organizations or state agencies and the amount of food is based on income guidelines set by the U.S. government and the size of the household. The program has encountered much criticism, much of it focused on the quality of the foods, which are typically too high in fats, starch, and sodium. (Little Eagle, 1994) In response to these criticisms, the USDA last year finally started to include more varied and nutritionally sound food products, including chicken and buffalo meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as reduced-salt canned soups and crackers at 45 distribution sites (by the end of 1998). However, U.S. government officials also acknowledged that "...it might not be feasible or possible to expand this program to serve all tribes..." 1
A hunger study conducted by Paul Miller among over 1,300 FDPIR recipients on Indian reservations in Montana concluded that almost 44% of those receiving commodities had reduced the variety of foods consumed due to a lack of money, over 40% had run out of food during the previous year and more than 25% reported that someone in the household had cut the size of meals or skipped meals usually to give their children more food instead.2 Thus the problem is not just the quality of foods provided by the FDPIR, but the quantity as well.
The 1996 welfare reform is likely to make the situation even worse. A number of families, especially those who have moved to towns outside the reservation, are likely to lose their cash benefits with the new limits set on eligibility. Indian nations have been given the option to institute their own programs; one of the few to do so in South Dakota is the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. The catch is that unless state legislation is passed to provide continued funding to run tribal programs (so called MOE, or maintenance of effort, funds) the tribal governments must essentially do more with fewer resources. Legislation to provide MOE funds was passed in South Dakota, but the governor vetoed it. At the same time the governor has pulled out all the stops - including bringing in FEMA - to help white ranchers, more and more of whom are becoming eligible for welfare due to severe weather and the failure of hundreds of family farms.3
Cankú Lúta realizes that occasional food drives dont solve the problem of hunger in Indian territories. Our long-range goals include helping to provide the material support necessary to develop food production and distribution systems which are directed and controlled by the people who live in the under or unserved communities. In the meantime, it is important to get the food and other material assistance to where it is most desperately needed, distributed by grassroots people who are in the best position to determine where and what the needs are. Please support our efforts!