Updated: Sep 6, 2022
“In the year 2050, I see my people being food sovereign, being happy, being healthy. Food is medicine,” Lakota leader Matte Wilson ponders while sitting near a geodesic greenhouse on the Sicangu Nation in what is known today as South Dakota.
Indigenous communities are responsible for protecting 80 percent of the most biodiverse areas in the world. While there is some institutional support, including the allocation of $1.7 billion in aid from European governments and private foundations to Indigenous communities and organizations in the aftermath of COP26, this is the exception and not the standard. Particularly when there are a lot of questions around how this money will be equitably distributed, as well as which Indigenous communities and organizations will receive these funds. At the same time, even though Indigenous groups make up 5% of the global population they are part of the 15% of the world’s most impoverished communities.
As a concept, the 7Gen Food Sovereignty Vision has the potential to develop an ideal, culturally appropriate ecological and philosophical approach that—Sicangu leaders hope—can address their community needs. These needs include the demand for culturally appropriate, nutritionally adequate and accessible food, as well as drivers of economic development to allow their community–and ways of living–to grow.
Colloquially known as the 7Gen Vision, Food Sovereignty Director Matte Wilson is a partner of this strategy and has raised awareness about this ongoing initiative. Simply put, “7Gen” refers to thinking about the community needs of those that will come seven generations into the future (175 years), and that this vision would be in alignment with immediate greenhouse gas emissions reduction approaches and mainstream climate goals that must be met in the coming decades. This is significant because it ensures that decision-making keeps in mind future generations and how policy in the present will affect the people and planet in the short, medium and long-term. So much of the history of human development and civilization, particularly in the last four centuries, has prioritized private wealth and economic production over all indicators of growth and wellbeing. The 7Gen Vision seeks to overhaul preconceived notions of what development can and should look like in the era of the climate and bio-cultural crises. Bio-cultural refers to the idea that human identity is not only formed by how we self-organize, but also how we live our lives in relation to the ecosystems that we are inextricably connected to.
It also involves reimagining the cultural legacy of the Lakota people in order to preserve and regenerate the bio-cultural community through land-based belonging. For example, even though the Lakota people were not traditionally farmers (they were hunters and gatherers), Matte would say that “we are making farming a new tradition for us.”
As Lakota, we have always been connected with our natural environment and practiced regenerative food production. Now we are bringing that into a modern context.
The Sicangu Lakota people in what is known as South Dakota today face economic hardship that manifests in the deterioration of nutrition and culture. Located in the Rosebud Nation, food is not readily accessible nor is it of high nutritional quality. “The current state of the food system here is that there are only three main grocery stores here on the reservation. The community members there have to make round trips of 20 to 40 miles just to get to a convenience store or a grocery store,” Matte Wilson speaks on the current state of affairs for his community. People live in multi-family households, so quantity over quality is emphasized in order to feed everyone adequately. Therefore, processed foods reign supreme.
I had the chance to hear from Food Sovereignty Director Matte Wilson. He serves this role with Sicangu Co, leading the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative (SFSI). I connected with Mr. Wilson through one of the Peasant and Indigenous Press Forums hosted by a food sovereignty-centered storytelling collective known as A Growing Culture.
In the past few years, Matte’s focus has been on planning for the next 30 years (first generation). The primary center of attention for this first stage: food.
Matte Wilson shares the Lakota concept of Wicozani, or “the good way of life.” A key component of Wicozani is that food is treated like medicine. Therefore, food is not just for nutritional health, but spiritual health and emotional health. The 7Gen Food Sovereignty strategy aims to reimagine how to approach benchmarks for environmental and social justice, in terms of both planning and action.
The Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative is designed to help community members, “learn
how to grow, produce, harvest, and prepare their own foods.” Meanwhile, Mr. Wilson has worked with new entrepreneurs in the “Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program,” who seek to start their own business. All the while, he is always trying to bring youth into the garden to carry on the knowledge and pay it forward.
Matte Wilson speaks on the impact that the geodesic greenhouse has on the local community and the initiative, “We are able to grow some of these exotic foods that, you know, we would normally have to get shipped in from other countries and other parts of the United States.” Examples of these “exotic” foods include figs include figs, bananas, grapes and radishes.
Even though technological innovation can be a controversial topic within environmental justice movements, this particular innovation is owned by Sicangu Co. Not to mention that this technological innovation minimizes food miles–which refer to the distance, and resources, it takes to transport food from producers to consumers–while staying true to culturally appropriate food systems, a key focus of the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative. Matte believes that this is an opportunity to “reclaim some of that system that we are not normally a part of.” A central component of the agricultural process both in and outside of this greenhouse are considerations of regeneration by not putting any chemicals into the ground.
Seed sovereignty and planting seeds is not Sicangu Co’s main focus. “Trying to leave the land better than how we found it.” In 1800, there were 60 million buffalo roaming North America. Today, it has begun to rebound back into the millions, but not yet recovered to its historical levels. This is truly tragic not just from a biodiversity perspective but also in terms of preserving the heritage of the Lakota people. Matte Wilson explains the origins of the mutual relationship between the Lakota, meaning ‘ally,’ and the tatanka, meaning ‘buffalo’:
Like good relatives, the tatanka offered their flesh, hides and bones to keep us warm, and feed our bodies and spirits. In return, we Lakota honor them above all others in songs and prayers. Our people are called Sicangu, ‘the ones with burnt thighs.’ We are one of the seven bands of the Lakota. Our ancestors were once caught in a raging prairie fire. They could try to run as the wildfire quickly spread, or they could turn to run directly in the fire with the hope of emerging safely on the other side. Faced with near certain death, they faced the second path, for themselves and their grandchildren–for us–at great personal cost. They earned the name Sicangu, signifying their bravery, and they had the scars to prove it.
In this cultural and historical context, it is no wonder that a central component of the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative is to reintroduce Buffalo into the area and sustainably ensure their longevity.
The conversation I had with Mr. Wilson about the 7Gen strategy reminded me of one of the calls to action from the Nyéléni Declaration of 2008:
We call for a world where…we value, recognize and respect our diversity of traditional knowledge, food, language and culture, and the way we organise and express ourselves.
In other words, strategies such as 7Gen are inclusive of relevant social and do not shy away from historical contexts. This awareness of the past does not stifle creative solution-making, however. Matte Wilson is working within his community to imagine and actualize a new reality that aligns with his community as well as planetary wellbeing.