The Food Sovereignty Project tells stories about traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices that honor and strengthen the relationship to the plants and animals that sustain all of us. The seven-story project was co-managed by Nicole Charley and Jackleen de La Harpe for Underscore News with generous support from The Roundhouse Foundation. Read the entire series here.
The hulking 20,000-square-foot building, sandwiched between a rough road and dark evergreen trees, is unremarkable save for a heap of cedar, pine and fir logs stacked in the muddy parking lot — half for all tribal members, half reserved for elders.
The functional exterior of the food warehouse for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians belies what’s inside: an orderly and warm storage facility housing frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable food such as applesauce, boxed milk and cereals. Two forklifts are parked against one wall. The neat-as-a-pin commercial kitchen is as much a place to gather and visit as it is to learn to cook.
This is the domain of Marci Rilatos, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administrative services clerk for commodities distribution. A tribal member who grew up on the reservation, she knows her community and what they need: who doesn’t have a car, who is having trouble at home, who is hungry.
She points out the commodity foods she offers to income-eligible tribal members, including blocks of Maine blueberries, frozen carrots, rolls of bison meat. She picks up a box of cornflakes and shakes it — the sound of possibility.
“Cornflakes are not just for breakfast,” Rilatos said. “You can smash them up and whip them with egg and dip your pork or chicken in it, roll in corn flakes to fry or air fry or bake. Melted chocolate chips, and cornflakes with peanuts. Yum.”
This closet, she says, has extra food for kids who are struggling. Over there is the natural resources cooler with game meat that elders appreciate. Along another wall is the “share box,” food that people bring back to the warehouse if they can’t use it. Because it’s toward the end of the month, there is little to no fresh produce.
Food for health, sustenance
Nearly all of the food in this warehouse are “commods,” short for commodity food, provided through the USDA Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Commodities are a necessary part of the food puzzle for many tribal members both on and off the reservation, helping to take the pressure off low-income households. Those who apply and qualify — in 2021, a net annual income of no more than $28,380 for a family of four — are eligible for a monthly box of food.
Shelley UpChurch, 72, an enrolled Siletz member and treasurer for the Elder Tribal Council, has lived on the reservation since 1998, when she moved back to Oregon to care for her aging parents. She lives in a cozy two-bedroom apartment in housing the tribe provides for elders. From her kitchen window, she can see the sacred tribal Dance House adjacent to a grove of fir trees, trunks straight as flag poles. Over the bank, the Siletz River rushes west to the Pacific Ocean.
UpChurch initially used SNAP benefits to buy food, but the closest store in Siletz is small and expensive, she said, while larger, more affordable grocery stores in Toledo and Newport are too far away. FDPIR is simple: she shops by checklist and, a few weeks later, picks up her choices at the warehouse. She mentions that she has diabetes, and, while she appreciates "commods," she says she wishes they were more friendly for those, like her, who manage this disease.
Commodities on reservations
Historically, the U.S. government restricted tribes’ ability to hunt and gather the traditional foods — game, fish, roots and berries — that had sustained Native people for millennia. Hunting and gathering were replaced by commodities, government-issued rations like lard and flour, surplus foods that, at times, arrived on the reservation rancid or rotten. Many people starved.
“There is a history of rations, then the military diet in boarding schools, then families in need program, then FDPIR. They are technically separate programs with separate authorizations, but the models are the same. Renamed, same model,” wrote A-dae Romero-Briones in an email. Romero-Briones is Director of Programs for Native Agriculture and Food Systems at the First Nations Development Institute.
This is a familiar story for many tribes, a throughline from the past to reservations today. Nearly half of the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S. participate in the commodity system.
In 1857, the U.S. government forcibly removed the 27 bands that comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians from their homelands — west of the Cascade Mountains, from the Rogue River to north of the Columbia River — and confined them to the Siletz reservation. They were required to relinquish the guns, arrows and arrowheads they used for hunting, and couldn’t access off-reservation hunting grounds.
“It was illegal to leave the reservation. You could be shot,” said Sherry Addis, a tribal elder, adding that the Siletz tyee, or chief, “begged” the government for food. “I don’t know how you get out of bed when you lose 90 percent of your relatives,” she said, referring to a tribal mortality rate from starvation described in a book about the history of the Siletz peoples, The People are Dancing Again.
Despite the risks, some continued to hunt and fish for their relatives and neighbors. Kevin Goodell, 59, a foreman for the Siletz Natural Resources Department, said his dad and his dad’s closest friend would sometimes slip off the reservation to fish for lamprey and harvest deer. Later, they would drive around in an old pickup truck and distribute fish and meat.
“It was an ugly scene,” Goodell said. “Our people have survived with probably less money than any other culture. It’s shocking we are still here.”
Selene Rilatos, 61, who also grew up on the reservation and is a member of the Siletz Tribal Council, learned as a girl how to fish and hunt, skills she is grateful to know. She echoed Goodell’s memories of poverty and food insecurity on the reservation.
“As my father used to say, ‘Our people were never rich — our richness is in our culture and the love of the land,’” she said.
Building sovereignty with land, partnerships
Today, the Siletz Tribe is strengthening food sovereignty on several fronts. Last year, the tribe purchased a 38-acre farm five miles east of Siletz and is beginning to grow food that tribal members can harvest at the farm, both wild and cultivated.
The Siletz forged an agreement with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife so that the tribe gets more than 4,000 pounds of hatchery salmon each year, along with game meat that the state confiscates from poachers, hunters who shot the wrong animal or people hunting without a license. And Siletz is on a USDA registry that delivers additional food from farmers and producers, which is distributed from its warehouse.
The FDPIR program is also changing, slowly, due in large part to work by Native people to change the USDA Farm Bill. For many years, Indigenous farmers and ranchers petitioned to have their products — fish, meat, produce — included in FDPIR. In the 2018 Farm Bill, which comes up for renewal every five years, Congress provided $3.5 million to eight tribal nations for a demonstration project to buy food that better reflects traditional diets, including Native-harvested and grown foods. The Native Farm Bill coalition is advocating for additional changes to the 2023 Farm Bill.
Lummi Nation was awarded funding for the Self-Determination Demonstration Project. Tribal fishermen catch salmon and vacuum seal the fish into serving packages, which is then provided to tribal members.
“One year,” said Dewey Solomon Jr., a 50-year-old Lummi tribal member and FDPIR certification supervisor, “our tribal elders received frozen catfish from Mississippi in their food boxes. The elders laughed — especially because right out our front door are salmon, crab and shrimp. That’s how we make our living, so being able to sell our catch to USDA allows us to feed our tribe in the ways we know.”
Food sovereignty is key to the larger goal of self-determination, said Buck Jones, the salmon marketing specialist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. A tribe’s ability to provide its own food “defines who we are as a people,” he said.
“We can’t be sovereign if we’re not controlling our own foods,” Jones said. “Getting traditional food back into our people, that’s wealth right there. The things our ancestors taught us continue to guide us today.”
Lead image: Marci Rilatos oversees commodity food distribution for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, building partnerships to bring more traditional foods to tribal people. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)