Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance poised for growth under new leadership (2024)

After a year in transition, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) is ready to grow.

The Flagstaff, Ariz.-based nonprofit organization has spent more than a decade supporting food sovereignty efforts in the southwestern U.S. The organization has provided funding and technical assistance to producers since its inception in 2014. Under the stewardship of new Executive Director Ted Wright (Tlingit), NAFSA plans to begin expanding that support.

Some of that planned support will go toward establishing NAFSA’s Indigenous Seedkeeper Network and other programs in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere. More of it will emerge as the group folds mariculture —sometimes called marine farming or marine aquaculture — and other food sovereignty projects into NAFSA’s portfolio.

Before any of that can happen, the group has to put down steadier roots, Wright told Tribal Business News. That’s his plan for the rest of the year: working to stabilize NAFSA after a nearly year-long leadership transition.

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“We’re working on setting a really solid foundation for the organization to grow over the next several years,” Wright said. “We’re still doing development work — raising funds, establishing relationships, requesting donations, sponsoring events. We’re still providing that support, but we need to make sure that the growth we want is sustainable.”

Wright took over as executive director for NAFSA in March this year. While his ascent to leadership was “relatively quick,” he said, the overall transition took 8 months. Prior Executive Director Lilian Hill (Hopi) resigned from NAFSA in July 2023. Shiloh Maples (Anishinaabe) took over as interim executive director through November 2023. At that point Maples departed, leaving communications director Marian K. Bitsui (Diné) in charge.

Bitsui told Tribal Business News the transitory period was a “season of winter” for NAFSA. The organization was left with questions about what next steps were, and how to grow relationships with donors and supported producers.

“Any transition is difficult,” Bitsui said. “However, as Indigenous people, we understand that sometimes those seasons are needed and part of life. Recognizing lessons in the midst of challenges was a key aspect of our ability to keep moving forward, even if it felt inch by inch.”

All the while the organization was hunting for a new, permanent director to help the organization settle back into its growth pattern. During the transitory period, the group continued its work with its constituent grantees and stipend recipients. However, growth into other areas slowed down.

Wright’s arrival allowed Bitsui to resume her work as director of communications and provided steady leadership going forward.

“I’m happy that we have Ted as our leader. I’ve already learned a lot from him and his approach,” Bitsui said. “It’s safe to say I am breathing easier.”

Wright said much of his time so far has been spent contracting additional resources for operations, such as human resources and financial support.

It’s work Wright has done before. Prior to his arrival at NAFSA, Wright spent 25 years in Native executive leadership roles throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Some of that work included food sovereignty, which has become a passion for Wright.

Wright grew up in Sitka, Alaska, where commercial fishing has impacted subsistence fishing. Eventually, Wright became a tribal manager, where he dealt with the problem firsthand. The story has been the same for each tribe that Wright has helped manage: access to traditional foods has been curtailed.

Solving that problem creates a number of benefits for tribes: cultural restoration, better health, and even workforce development, according to Wright.

His first hands-on exposure to food sovereignty operation was with the Spokane Tribe. During his tenure as the tribe’s executive director, Wright oversaw a traditional food growth program with potentialto open up jobs for people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t work standard hours or in an office, Wright said.

“That was my intro to these programs. I realized that growing food or gathering food could work for people who couldn’t work a regular job,” Wright said. “That was one of my main reasons for becoming interested in NAFSA.”

NAFSA will hold an in-person council meeting in Minneapolis in July to lay down firmer future plans. Some new initiatives are already underway, however, such as expanding the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network. That program supports the reintroduction of traditional seeds into communities that have lost them through advocacy and outreach efforts.

The goal is to get a part-time coordinator for the Midwest to support a wider range of seedkeepers, Wright said.

“These programs have proven to be really fruitful, no pun intended,” he said. “We want to get that help out to more people.”

Once development efforts and operations solidify, NAFSA plans to provide more funding toward food sovereignty efforts. Currently, the organization issues stipends for individual growers, micro and macro grants for larger operations, sponsorship for events, and workshops to educate the public.

They awarded 69 grower stipends of $2,000 each between fall and spring distributions. At the Santa Clara Pueblo-based Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute, a microgrant supported an annual seed exchange. At Arizona-based Curley Farms, another microgrant helped provide hands-on farming workshops.

Lucille Grignon (Stockbridge-Munsee, Menominee) is a member of the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network under NAFSA and stipend awardee. She said the organization’s support had been critical in allowing her to begin her seedkeeping operations.

“I was funded in 2022, and I was able to provide traditional seed keeping workshops for my community,” Grignon said. “Having time and funding to share my connections to Mother Earth to my community and beyond — especially the youth of our people — is such a beautiful, exciting gift.”

Many of the recent awardees are in the Southwest and focused on traditional, plant-based or cattle-based agriculture. Wright would like to see some future NAFSA funding go to coastal communities, including Alaska, in support of mariculture. More than any one region, though, NAFSA wants to have a presence “everywhere we can,” according to Wright.

“We want to be able to help more of the country, not just some parts of it,” Wright said. “That’s why we’re working on stabilizing (the organization). We’re going to make sure that foundation is set for growth over these next several years.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its original version.

About The Author

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance poised for growth under new leadership (1)

Author: Chez Oxendine

Staff Writer

Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.

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