FAO in North America

Introductions with North American Indigenous Peoples and their Food Systems


2 September 2020 – Indigenous peoples’ food systems have sustained communities while preserving biodiversity for centuries. FAO considers indigenous peoples as key allies in improving food security and transforming food systems given their traditional knowledge, capacity to preserve biodiversity and ability to adapt to a changing environment. To expand and strengthen dialogues with North American indigenous peoples in global efforts underway to inform food system transformations, FAO held a series of introductory meetings on the topic of North American Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems.

Over the course of the past two months through seven introductory meetings, 124 representatives from 95 entities, including indigenous peoples’ organizations and representative bodies, academic institutes, research and government agencies met with FAO. The FAO Liaison Office for North America hosted these meetings in collaboration with FAO’s Indigenous Peoples Unit and with United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) North American representative, Geoffrey Roth. Though a small representation in comparison to the +1500 distinct and diverse tribal nations and aboriginal peoples across Canada and the United States of America, these meetings served as a vibrant forum to deepen our understanding of North American indigenous peoples’ food systems.

Conversations included introductions on FAO’s mandate and role in ensuring global food security and in delivering upon the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and its work with indigenous peoples globally. Facilitated listening sessions with indigenous stakeholders helped us understand their current priorities and challenges and the brainstorming sessions helped build possible pathways for developing synergies between FAO and North American indigenous peoples to strengthen their voice and influence at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Discussions expanded on how our coordinated collaborations can have a global impact and start similar dialogues in other regions.

From leadership of indigenous representative bodies and indigenous-led organizations we heard about widespread capacity building initiatives on local, regional and national levels for local food sovereignty systems involving indigenous language and cultural revitalization, sustainable economic development initiatives based in traditional values, climate change adaptation strategies and policy reform to support lasting change. Also central in this dialogue were the intrinsic linkages indigenous food systems have to access of lands, waters, plants, animals, ecosystems, which themselves were intertwined with rights, treaties and agreements with landholders.

In the United States of America and Canada, many of the landholders are federal and local agencies. Through the course of the conversations, we heard noteworthy accounts of collaborative partnerships and successfully negotiated agreements between federal agencies and indigenous nations both in land access agreements as well as research and development. A common thread in these collaborative examples was indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and systems of science were respectfully valued as equally valid and integrated with scientific methodologies of knowledge. These collaborative partnership processes while long and difficult, once reached, are mutually beneficial for the indigenous peoples’ involved, as well for the ecological health, biodiversity and ultimately support the long-term ecological stewardship responsibilities of federal agencies.

A large dialogue with indigenous and non-indigenous scholars from academic institutes and research centres across Canada and the United States of America emphasized the growing repository of information, studies, publications and focus on indigenous peoples’ food systems, innovations, natural resource management strategies and integrated approaches to health. The growing base of research, academic partners and indigenous-led research approaches are strongly supporting the expanse of indigenous peoples’ food systems work within institutes and on the ground.

From the arctic food systems of the far north, to the dry land farming in the southwest, aquatic and terrestrial food systems of coasts and islands, to the expansive great plains and up into the vast mountain ranges - the diversity of indigenous peoples’food systems, the keystone species, and surrounding ecologies are as extensive and diverse as the islands and mainland of North America. There are commonalities in longstanding challenges as well as strong unities in the centrality of indigenous languages, cultural practices, cosmologies, relationships of reciprocity, interconnectedness and traditional knowledge systems in perpetuating, revitalizing and sustaining indigenous peoples’food systems. Standing on the three pillars of health and nutrition; language, culture and spirituality; and natural resources and biodiversity, indigenous peoples’ holistic approach to food systems could be the proverbial lighthouse as we navigate global food insecurity and malnutrition.

FAO North America and the Indigenous Peoples Unit look forward to developing these dialogues into sustained support of the on-going work of North American indigenous peoples and partners to revitalize, sustain and protect adequate access to nutritional, culturally appropriate foods and clean waters. As we collectively move towards the 2021 Food Systems Summit, it will be key that indigenous peoples’ food systems experts are an influential presence in the global dialogues for food systems transformation towards healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems.