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Environmental Justice in Action: Native Food Systems Initiative

This article is part of the series: “Seattle Environmental Justice in Action” — highlighting projects and organizations that are advancing environmental justice in our city. In 2017, the City of Seattle and the King Conservation District (KCD) to support projects that advance environmental justice along with improving natural resources in Seattle. Project proposals were required to address the goals of the Seattle Equity & Environment Agenda as well as natural resource priorities.

The Na’ah Illahee Fund’s Native Food Systems Initiative encompasses the planting, growing, harvesting, preparing and delivery of a mix of cultivated vegetables and native plants to urban Native people in need across Seattle. This is environmental justice in action.

A cohort member attends drop-in hours to water the garden

The program connects urban Native peoples across the Seattle area through a cohort model that builds community and shares knowledge. The current cohort consists of around 10-15 urban Native peoples from many Indigenous cultures, tribes, and lands. Most often, they are displaced indigenous peoples. In addition to not having access to their homelands, many urban Native people don’t have a garden space where they can plant something and return later to see it thriving.

The garden and greenhouse at the Arboretum provides this garden space.  Stephanie Reidl (Sts’ailes & Musqueam, First Nations) Indigenous Food Program Coordinator at Na’ah Illahee Fund has built the program from the ground up, including supplementing her own knowledge through permaculture training and recruiting cohort members. Many of the systems and principles Euro-Western people know as “permaculture” are appropriated knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

Corn, squash, and beans all grow together to provide complementary shade and ground coverage

The foods that the cohort members are growing and harvesting reflect a diverse group and diverse food traditions. The focus is cultivating heirloom seeds that can be regrown, re-harvested and redistributed to the community. These include Oaxacan green dent corn cultivated by Oaxacan peoples, 800-year-old squash and many others.

Stephanie’s hope is that by providing this garden space, cohort members will share their knowledge, grow together and re-create community. This initiative is part of a thriving food sovereignty movement led by Indigenous peoples that incorporates seed sharing and organized shared learning programs to expand interpersonal networks around plant education and traditional knowledge. In coming months, Stephanie’s goal is to cultivate more opportunities for cohort members to lead the program with more learning activities and field trips.