what is indigenous sustenance sovereignty?
fOOD SECURITY, FOOD SOVEREIGNTY, AND iNDIGENOUS sUSTENANCE sOVEREIGNTY
The theft, appropriation, commodification, or modification of biological or genetic materials, species, knowledge, and resources, commonly conducted by a dominant party without consent from and ethical compensation to the marginalized (most often, Indigenous) people and communities of the territory and/or to whom the resource belongs. Biopiracy is often committed by researchers, pharmaceutical corporations, alternative medicine and spirituality enterprises and movements, and the agricultural industry.
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“What does Indigenous sustenance sovereignty mean? How is this different from food security or food sovereignty?”
Food security was introduced at the first World Food Conference in 1974, and it has been reconceptualized each decade since by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and various authors. Initial understandings targeted market fluctuations and food supply, while modifications to the definition since then have been amended to focus on food access as well as social factors.1, 2 The most recent iteration of food security defines the term as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”, capturing food availability, access, utilization, and stability.3
While the concept of food security operates and proposes solutions within the existing political, economic, and social systems that determine our food access, food sovereignty, through its various definitions, addresses the root causes of food injustices. Food sovereignty was amplified by La Via Campesina, an international movement comprised of small-scale farmers, peasants, agricultural workers, women, and Indigenous people advocating for agricultural reform and peasant, farmer, and women's rights. In 1996 at the World Food Summit, La Via Campesina articulated their vision of food sovereignty as "the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems".4 Food sovereignty can also be broadly defined as “communities’ control over the way food is produced, traded and consumed” with priority placed on “people and the environment rather than profits for multinational corporations”.5 Food sovereignty movements are historically tied to peasant rights and working class labour rights and are against neoliberalism and the individualistic capitalist economy, transnational companies and agribusinesses, GMOs that compromise traditional seeds, agrotoxics and their harm on the environment, and patriarchy.
Sustenance sovereignty formally emerged as a term employed by Indigenous participants of the Indigenous Forum on Food Sovereignty and Local Sustenance at the 2008 International Congress of Ethnobiology (ICE). Forum participants linked the term to declarations pertaining to traditional knowledge systems, ancestral cultures, and access to land, seeds, food diversity, and water free of corporate agriculture's market dominance, carbon markets, genetic modification and commodification, and biopiracy.6 Sustenance sovereignty has been further applied as an Indigenous-specific framework of food sovereignty by founding members of Mno Wiisini Gitigaanan (Sacred Seeds Collective), a Two-Spirit focused grassroots sustenance sovereignty initiative located within Rontinosaunee (Longhouse), Métis, & Anishinaabek homelands near the shores of the sacred ancestral waters of Wasaagama (Nottawasaga Bay, part of Georgian Bay). Mno Wiisini Gitigaanan members expanded upon the term sustenance sovereignty to capture the breadth of their work in decolonization, Indigenous food sovereignty, nation-to-nation relationship building, 2Spirit youth leadership, knowledge sharing, traditional planting and harvesting methodologies, seed saving, and native food and plant medicine community distribution. Words by founding member Hunter Cascagnette illustrate this term and it's distinctions from non-Indigenous approaches to agriculture:
"As Indigenous people trying to heal our lands, and revive our traditional diets and relationships to the land, from the ceremony of seeding to harvest, we are not farmers, we are earth workers. We work for our mother, the earth, to restore our lands, our traditional roles, treaty responsibilities, and relationships to all of our relations, so that our food/plant medicines – and all our non-human relatives – can return and prosper to help the earth, waters, and our people to heal”. 7
For many Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island, sustenance sovereignty is a more apt concept than food sovereignty, as it acknowledges and accounts for the interconnected and unisolated nature of Indigenous land-based ways of life. Sustenance sovereignty includes the principles captured by the term food sovereignty, but it also means:
• sustenance includes more than food and agriculture. It is the relationships and teachings of hunted, trapped, fished, foraged, and medicinal practices. Sustenance sovereignty includes the water, soil, and air that the species that Indigenous people depend on to thrive also depend on. The term includes land-crafted materials and items, such as culturally-specific food planting, harvesting, processing, preserving, and storage technologies. Land-based tools, structures, clothing, and art, as well as land-derived ceremonies, songs, laws, and stories are all part of Indigenous peoples’ interdependent networks of sustenance.
• refusing, resisting, and evicting projects that compromise the health of the ecosystems their sustenance systems depend on.
• a lived understanding that the settler rights-based framework is unreliable in protecting sustenance relationships, and that the authority of inherited sustenance rights comes from ancient relationships, not the Canadian state.
• an inherited right to trade, exchange, and gift with one another as they have always done.
• the self-determination of Indigenous people to sustain human and more-than-human kin on traditional territories - free of settler intervention and regulation - along localized, cultivated, and migratory routes informed by bioregionally-informed sustenance cycles.
• recognition that each species that comprises an Indigenous sustenance system is a sovereign nation unto itself, with its own agency, laws, and stories.
• the dismantlement of cisheteropatriarchy, which is required to replace the authority of communities’ sustenance decision making back in the hands of their Two-Spirit and womxn community members as it once extensively was for many communities.
• resisting and dismantling colonial oppression from the policy level to the personal level.
• an allied understanding that Indigenous-to-Turtle-Island oppression is linked to that of other communities of colour who have been similarly displaced from their ancestral territories and earth work practices and whose settlement on Turtle Island territories may be tied with slavery, imperially-induced civil conflict, and colonial exploitation.
• an affirmation that Indigenous people should not have to part with, trade, or sell their sustenance knowledge, practices, and/or harvests to be recognized as credible and inherent leaders. A further affirmation that parting with, trading, or selling sustenance knowledge, practices, and/or harvests is at times considered necessary to Indigenous people for their survival under settler colonialism and capitalism.
• the right to reparations, restoration, and land rematriation to alleviate the impact of occupation and to restore the wellness and vitality of Indigenous peoples’ ways of life.
1 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Policy Brief. Food Security (Italy: FAO, 2006),
Issue 2, page 1.
2 FAO, Trade Reforms and Food Security: Conceptualizing the Linkages (Rome: FAO, 2003), chapter 2,
3 Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) "What is food security?", FCRN Foodsource,
4 La Via Campesina, "The International Peasant's Voice: Globalizing Hope, Globalizing the Struggle!",
5 Global Justice Now, "What is Food Sovereignty?",
6 International Journal of Ethnobiology, Newsletter 1, no.1 (January 2009), page 6,
7 Cascagnette, Hunter, "Earth Workers, Not Famers", The Peak (May 7 2018),