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SLATE: The Fight for the Right to Eat Seal Blubber

SLATE: The Fight for the Right to Eat Seal Blubber

In Alaskan nursing homes and hospitals, tight federal regulations have meant that the most comforting foods for natives have been labeled illegal. That’s slowly changing.

By Jonathan Reisman

View the original story published in Slate here.

One afternoon in 2014, May Bernhardt, an 87-year-old Inupiat Eskimo with stringy gray hair, toothlessly chewed a banana. The fruit was perfectly ripe and a good source of fiber and potassium, but she hated it.


Bernhardt lives in a nursing home in the Alaskan Arctic, and like the other Inupiat elders in the home, she was accustomed to being served imported foods from faraway climes. But she and the others craved the traditional Inupiat foods they grew up eating. Most of them were raised in the bush of northwestern Alaska living a mostly subsistence lifestyle, eating caribou, fish, wild tundra berries, and marine mammals like seals and whales. Once they moved into the nursing home, a wooden building atop stilts drilled into permafrost beneath the grassy tundra, they had to eat what the home provided. And that meant bananas, green beans, potatoes, and pasta.


“You can’t get an old-timer Eskimo and just switch them over to white [people’s] food. Such a big change don’t agree with ’em,” Bernhardt complained. Richard, another elder sitting nearby, 66-years-old and gray at the temples, concurred with the assessment.


The problem is they didn’t have much say in the matter. Federal regulations determine which foods can be served in most nursing homes, and traditional Inupiat foods, the most unique of all Native American cuisines, sorely conflict with rules for nutrition and food safety. Since 2011, when the elders moved into the nursing home in the town of Kotzebue—with a population of 3,000, it’s Alaska’s largest town above the Arctic Circle—a distant federal bureaucracy thousands of miles away had come between them and the wild, meat- and animal fat–based diet they had grown up on.


They complained. And the staff at the nursing home listened and brought their concerns south—to dieticians in Anchorage, health care providers, and Alaskan politicians. Soon, they had sparked a battle between this far-flung nursing home and the federal government that would embroil this tiny Arctic town in a tangled web of nutrition politics.


* * *


When Val Kreil arrived in Kotzebue in 2013, he planned to stay for three weeks as the nursing home’s interim director. A soft-spoken middle-aged man, balding with a few tufts of red hair, Kreil had worked in more than 30 nursing homes throughout the “Lower 48,” as Alaskans call the continental U.S.


But Kotzebue charmed him immediately. He liked the home’s diverse staff from all over the country and world. Sure, the negative-40-degree winter days and ferocious winds were daunting, but the hardy locals amazed him with their good nature despite living in one of the Earth’s harshest climates.


More than anything, Kreil was impressed by how the Inupiat community showed respect toward its elders. In his vast experience, Kreil explained, “Kotzebue is the only place where I have seen elders truly respected. In the Lower 48, it’s more just lip service.” He admired the Inupiat tradition of young hunters always sharing their catch with elders, a sign of deference in a hunting-centered culture. So Kreil signed on as permanent director of the country’s northernmost accredited nursing home, known as Utuqqanaat-Inaat in Inupiaq.


And then he started to hear the complaints about the food—complaints that went deeper than the expected dissatisfaction from constant cafeteria food. The home had a strict meal schedule, as in other nursing homes, one designed to meet the nutritional goals determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and enforced by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, which determines reimbursements for all accredited, federally funded nursing homes like Kotzebue’s. Kreil knew his nursing home depended on federal reimbursement, and receiving that money required he serve only USDA-approved foods. He answered the elders’ supplications by blaming “the Lower 48—and the elders knew exactly what I meant.”


The only exception to the prohibition against traditional foods in the nursing home was during monthly “potlucks.” On the first Monday of each month, a long buffet table stretched across the nursing home’s dining hall with bubbling caribou soup, raw whale blubber, baked salmon and sheefish, wild berry desserts, and a bowl of seal oil—the quintessential Inupiat condiment and all-purpose dip. Steam would curl upward into the hall’s high, latticed ceilings as residents and their relatives, who provided the spread, feasted. (It could not be prepared in the nursing home’s kitchen or served using its plates or cutlery.) Potluck foods, legally considered “gifts” to the elders, were exempt from the official tallies of caloric intake that counted toward nutritional goals.


* * *


When Kreil moved to Kotzebue, he inherited the previous director’s effort to serve traditional foods more often. When he reached out to a USDA representative in the Lower 48 to discern where things stood, he was met with surprise—she was not accustomed to contact from above the Arctic Circle, where agriculture and livestock, the USDA’s focus, are virtually nonexistent. To be eligible for federal reimbursement dollars, wild game animals, she told him, would require the same pre- and postmortem inspection as domesticated animals. A pre-mortem inspection for wild caribou, moose, musk oxen, seals, and whales is, of course, impossible. (As Kreil put it, they’re “not going to just stand there for the USDA inspector to stare” at them.) And besides, selling wild game meat is illegal anyway, so receiving federal reimbursement for such food would be akin to its illegal purchase and therefore impossible.


Traditional Inupiat foods—and indeed all local foods in the Arctic—are necessarily wild. But USDA guidelines apply chiefly to domesticated produce. In addition, Inupiat dishes violate the USDA’s nutritional standards. The particular Arctic environment of northwestern Alaska shaped a unique native cuisine of wild foods high in meat and animal fat and virtually devoid of fruits and vegetables. High-fat foods like whale blubber and seal oil, though once essential for surviving Arctic winters, exceed recommendations for fat intake as taught by modern medical dogma. And serving such foods raw, a favorite Inupiat custom, is totally out of the question for federal standards. Despite its stunning natural bounty, as far as the USDA was concerned, northern Alaska is a food desert.


Kotzebue was not the only town in Alaska experiencing this fight, though. Kreil soon found an ally in Ted Mala, an internal medicine physician, who had been pushing for a rule change at his Anchorage hospital before Kreil’s arrival. Like nursing homes, federally funded hospitals and schools also receive reimbursement only by serving USDA-approved foods and meeting nutrition standards.


A tall hulking figure with a gentle voice, Mala had noticed his elderly patients frequently refusing hospital food but heartily eating traditional dishes brought in by relatives. He treated one native teenage girl with depression and suicidal thoughts who had been transferred to Anchorage from her remote village and, at first, refused to speak to psychiatrists. Once under Mala’s care at Anchorage’s native hospital, the flagship facility of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, she began eating traditional foods and opened up. “After a while they couldn’t get her to stop talking,” Mala said. “Imagine—a child flown out of her village against her will to the big city, locked up in a hospital and given tasteless food she wasn’t used to.” He still attributes her improvement to being in a place where “people were talking her own language and eating her own foods.”


Mala has numerous stories pointing to the important role traditional foods have played in his patients’ health, yet, he griped, “these foods practically had to be smuggled into the hospital like illicit contraband.” He especially recognized their value for patients suffering from mental health issues, a rampant epidemic among Alaska Native young adults.


Mala’s experience is anecdotal, but evidence is accumulating to support his conviction. The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention began encouraging consumption of traditional foods in 2008 as a way to promote health and prevent obesity and diabetes among Native Americans. With the shift away from physically demanding subsistence lifestyles and toward foods mostly purchased in grocery stores, health problems that were once rare have become common among native peoples. Obesity rates in Alaska soared more than 60 percent from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, accompanied by rising rates of obesity-related diseases like diabetes. The medical profession increasingly sees traditional foods as part of the solution.


Mala was raised in Buckland, a tiny road-less village that sits one hour by motorboat upriver from Kotzebue. (His father, Ray Mala, was Hollywood’s first native movie star.) After finishing medical school, Ted Mala became the first Alaskan Native physician to practice medicine in his home state. He has become a leading proponent of blending native traditions with modern conceptions of health.


In 2009, Mala began attending annual White House Tribal Nations Conferences where tribal representatives gathered to raise issues and engage with specific federal agencies. Each year he represented the Inupiat Eskimo and pushed the USDA about serving traditional foods to hospitalized patients. His argument rested on cultural and health grounds—more traditional foods would improve health and strengthen native culture—but also on economic ones. In a region with few job opportunities but plentiful fish and game, serving wild foods could help the local economy, he argued. Instead of spending federal money on shipping costly produce, all of which comes from further south, funds could instead support local hunters and fishermen to provide food to the town’s nursing home, hospital, and school.


But his annual argument yielded little progress. So, in 2011, Mala tried a different route: He approached Alaska’s Sen. Mark Begich to discuss legislative fixes. Begich was familiar with the issue—it was a topic of regular complaint from his constituents. After a rural outreach trip to Kotzebue in 2012, during which nursing home staff pressed him on it, he tasked his assistant Andrea Sanders with drafting legislation that he would present on the U.S. Senate floor.


Sanders, a native of Alaska’s Yukon River delta region, began researching the issue. In early 2013, she began drafting a bill that would allow traditional foods to be served in public facilities primarily serving native people while also encouraging increased consumption of traditional foods for health reasons. She borrowed wording from Alaska’s own state regulations on wild foods. With its frontier culture and strong tradition of living off the land, Alaska’s law was far more lenient than federal rules on the topic of traditional and wild foods. Mala wrote letters of support, providing both medical and cultural perspectives for politicians and federal agencies.


The following year, in early 2014, the U.S. Congress was busy tussling over the Farm Bill, a massive piece of legislation setting federal policy for agriculture and food that is renewed every five years. Using the legislation Sanders had drafted, Begich pushed for a traditional foods amendment in the Senate while Alaska’s Don Young pushed similarly in the House of Representatives. There was plenty of debate over a Republican initiative to strip safety net legislation from the bill, but little disagreement over the traditional foods amendment. It was ultimately included in the final legislation, signed into law on Feb. 7, 2014. The amendment, titled “Service of Traditional Foods in Public Facilities,” was a major victory for Alaska and for natives throughout the country. In the words of Daniel Consenstein, a USDA representative in Anchorage, the 2014 Farm Bill was “the first time that the U.S. Congress officially recognized that the traditional foods of Native Americans are a real part of the American food system. And an important part.”


* * *


On a drizzly day in July 2015, more than a year after the passage of the updated Farm Bill, a crowd gathered around a small trailer in Kotzebue for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. A leading member of the Inupiat community spoke as raindrops splotched his notes; miles away across the tundra, rain quenched wildfires that had filled the town with smoke in recent days. The speaker stood before a row of Inupiat elders sitting in wheelchairs, themselves surrounded by dozens of locals who had come out in support. Mala stood among the crowd and received a special mention in the brief speech.


The ribbon was cut to inaugurate the Siglauq Center, Alaska’s first official processing center for native foods. The trailer, a repurposed woodworking shop, would provide space and tools to process wild game and fish served in Kotzebue’s nursing home. The crowd toured the trailer, admiring its gleaming steel counters topped with saws and grinders and its two large walk-in freezers for storage.


The construction of the Siglauq Center helped the nursing home clear the remaining legal hurdles posed by USDA regulation by providing a sanctioned place to process the food. After the approval of the Farm Bill, Kreil had called the USDA administrator once again to discuss the “Exotic Animals” provision of the Farm Bill. The provision lists common game species requiring proper USDA inspection, including deer, elk, and bison, but says nothing about two deer family members most relevant to northwestern Alaska—caribou and moose. The USDA administrator, admitting that since moose and caribou were not mentioned in the provision they may not require USDA oversight after all, agreed to defer to Alaska’s state agencies for approving these wild game meats.


Kreil had also triumphed by gaining approval from CMS for his new menu. On a conference call that included representatives of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation and federal representatives of CMS, Kreil argued that a CMS memo released in September 2011 allowed nursing homes to serve produce from their own gardens. In the Arctic, Kreil argued, “the tundra is our garden,” and so its wild bounty was the equivalent of garden vegetables in the Lower 48. DEC granted Siglauq a permit, and CMS agreed to maintain federal reimbursements for the wild foods processed there.


By summer 2016 Inupiat foods were officially on the menu in Kotzebue’s nursing home—prepared in its kitchen, served on its plates, and counted toward the nutritional goals of its residents. Cyrus Harris, a local Inupiat man, worked as the nursing home’s official hunter and fisherman, perhaps the only job description of its kind in the country. Harris grew up along the shores and rivers of northwestern Alaska and cherishes the job that allows him to continue traditional subsistence activities and to serve his respected elders.


* * *


Despite the achievements already won, the battle over traditional foods continues. One food not yet included or approved in the Farm Bill is seal oil. A Seal Oil Task Force formed in late 2016 with Kreil and a team of dieticians pushing for its inclusion among permitted traditional foods. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are currently analyzing seal oil samples for botulism, a potential danger of improper production and a primary concern of health agencies. If safe production can be ensured, Alaska’s DEC will allow it to join the menu.


During a recent lunch at Kotzebue’s nursing home, Bernhardt sat at one of the tables, slurping loudly at a bowl of caribou soup. Behind her, against the dining room wall, stood a large glass case displaying traditional Inupiat clothing and hunting implements—clothing that she grew up wearing that is now confined to display. Her generation may be the last to have truly grown up in the Arctic wild, and the threat posed by rising sea levels to Alaska’s coastal villages may speed the already hastened demise of Inupiat culture.


But on that day, her complaint was simpler: She thought her own caribou soup recipe was better.

USDA Food and Nutrition Service opens Farm to School grant

USDA Food and Nutrition Service opens Farm to School grant

Funding Opportunity #: 
Open (Posted) Date: 
Closed Date: 

In this funding cycle USDA anticipates awarding approximately $5 million in grant funding to support efforts that improve access to local foods in schools. Grant funds will be made available on a competitive basis, subject to availability of federal funds. Applicants may apply for a Planning grant, Implementation grant, or Training grant. Planning grant awards will range from $20,000-$50,000 and implementation grant awards will from $50,000-$100,000. Funding for training grants is expected to range from $20,000-$50,000. For all three types of grants, the federal share of a project cannot exceed 75 percent of the total cost of the project, as required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Therefore, the applicant must provide at least 25 percent of the costs of the total project. The total project cost is the federal grant request amount plus the applicant match.

The RFA and other helpful documents are located under “Related Documents” on!

Science Post Graduate Scholarship apps due Oct. 31

Science Post Graduate Scholarship apps due Oct. 31

Science Post Graduate Scholarship Fund (S.T.E.M. Loan for Service)


Note: All applicants are required to submit a Tribal Eligibility Certificate (TEC) and Financial Needs Form (FNF) which is always available at where you may also review the AIGC Online Application Instructions.

Science Post Graduate Scholarship Fund (STEM Loan for Service) is a graduate level educational loan awarded to enrolled members of a federally recognized American Indian tribe or Alaska Native group OR provide documentation of ancestry to possession of one-fourth degree Indian blood of a federally recognized tribe pursuing graduate or professional level education. To be considered, applicants must possess a minimum 3.0 GPA and be pursuing a master, doctorate or professional degree in the STEM fields. Must be (or will be) pursuing a master’s or doctorate degree as a full-time degree-seeking student at an accredited graduate school in the United States. Exclusive consideration is paid to degree candidates in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields (may include: Medical and Life Sciences; Engineering and Physical Sciences; Mathematics and Computational Sciences, Earth, Environmental and Agriculture Sciences; and Technology) to be verified through the submission of current transcripts or proof of acceptance to an eligible program;

The specific purpose of the Science Post Graduate Scholarship Fund (SPGSF) program is to provide financial assistance to eligible American Indian and Alaska Native graduate and professional degree candidates to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) research in and opportunities for careers with Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and BIE funded organizations on and off reservation and tribal governments. Future employment with other federal and state agencies and private entities may be eligible if the organization’s primary mission is assistance and support to tribal communities or individuals.

Advanced education is the STEM fields is in greater demand than ever before, particularly in Indian communities. Many tribal lands are situated on lands with greater natural resources potential that requirement individuals with education, skills and expertise to sustainably develop resources. Indian students in STEM fields often recognize the importance of reinvesting their knowledge back into their home communities, bringing skills back to home tribes or other tribal communities. There is a high deficiency in STEMfields and urgency for research to understand why. A portion of the SPGSF will be directed towards graduate level (Masters and Doctoral) research to understand the barriers that discourage Indian students participation in these fields and expanding STEM opportunities at Tribal Colleges and Universities.

The SPGSF is a loan for service program to be served on a 1 per 1 basis, i.e., one year of funding per one year of service. The maximum amount of an award will be up to $30,000 per year. Actual award amounts and the number of awards will be determined based on the number of funded students at each academic level (master’s, professional and doctoral).

Note: All applicants are required to submit a Tribal Eligibility Certificate (TEC) and Financial Needs Form (FNF) which is always available at where you may also review the AIGC Online Application Instructions.

Award Up to $30,000

Supplemental Questions

  1. All applicants for the STEM Loan for Service must be in good academic standing. Please upload your most recent transcript verifying your academic eligibility for this program.
  2. The AIGC STEM Loan for Service opportunity is primarily intended for individuals with a willingness and ability to accept employment with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education, other federal agencies/positions primarily serving American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities, state or local government agencies/positions primarily serving AI/AN communities or tribal governments. Secondarily, AIGC STEM Loan for Service recipients MAY be approved for employment in non-government organizations (NGO), Community Based Organizations (CBO) or other organizations where the STEM Loan for Service Fellow will work primarily with or within American Indian Communities. The BIE Office of Higher Education holds the sole responsibility for approval of all aforementioned positions which must begin within six (6) months of graduation; therefore, it is imperative that recipients understand that they should seek a variety of positions prior to completing their graduate program. Most BIE position openings can be reviewed at Selecting the “I agree” box below indicates to AIGC and the BIE that applicants and eventual recipients of the AIGC STEM Loan for Service agree to seek and accept employment in the primary foci areas of this award. Please note that in some cases it may require that a recipient RELOCATE to obtain suitable employment for this service related payback.
  3. In 500 words or less, please describe how your selected STEM major will apply to the intent of the STEM Loan for Service program (see previous question) as it applies to our personal committment to serve the American Indian and Alaska Native community.
  4. Please list your four (4) most recent paid and unpaid employment positions
    • Dates of employment
    • Describe the duties of the position
    • Name of organization
    • Title of your position
  5. Please list up to four (4) community engagement opportunities in which you have recently engaged
    • Dates of this community engagement
    • Describe the activities in which you participated for this community engagement opportunity
    • Name of Organization
  6. Please list up to four (4) leadership roles you have held in recent years
    • Dates of leadership role
    • Describe the activities associated with this leadership role
    • Leadership role/position/title
    • Name of organization
  7. LFS: Please provide contact information for someone who can address questions regarding your academic strengths and abilities. Make sure you enter a correct email address for the person you named to be your reference.
  8. LFS: Please provide contact information for someone who can address your community service and leadership history and potential. Make sure you enter a correct email address for the person you named to be your reference.
  9. Program Plan: If you have a Program Plan (a map of coursework by terms toward degree/diploma completion), please upload it here. This will help program staff to determine your persistence and academic success for future funding.
  10. Please tell us how you heard about the American Indian Graduate Center and our opportunities. This information will help to inform us in future outreach activities.
Intertribal Agriculture Council seeks youth essay applicants

Intertribal Agriculture Council seeks youth essay applicants

The Intertribal Agriculture Council is accepting essay applications for its 2017 Youth Essay Contest. Essays will be judged on organization of information, spelling and punctuation, quality of grammar and quality of entry. Three finalists will be chosen and honored during the IAC Annual Meeting and Youth Alliance Conference.

Essay Topic:

The next generation of Indian Agriculture will be at the forefront of meeting America’s demand for food security. Our young leaders have been filling crucial roles at home, producing the food that feeds our communities. Now, Indian Country relies on our youth to carry our message farther than ever before. Ensuring a Native voice is heard in the 2018 Farm Bill is a critical concern for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, and we need your help in doing so.

What does my community need in the Farm Bill?

How does the Farm Bill impact Indian Agriculture?

What programs in my community are impacted by the Farm Bill?

How will I take an active role in ensuring my community is represented by the 2018 Farm Bill?

What are two steps my chaperone* and I must take to ensure we effectively reach this active role in our community?

*Designated chaperones awarded a travel scholarship are required to attend all IAC Membership Meeting sessions, December 11-14, 2017.


RESOURCES: An Assessment of Risks and Opportunities for Native Communities in the Farm Bill can be found on the website:

REGISTRATION FEE: Includes all sessions, workshops & the luncheon to be held Tuesday afternoon. For additional information on the registration fees see the registration form.

PROCEDURE: Complete the registration form and return with payment to: Intertribal Agriculture Council 100 North 27th Street, Suite #500 Billings, MT 59101 No purchase orders PLEASE! (Methods of payments accepted: cash, check or credit card; Am. Express, Master Card or Visa)

HOTEL: Address: 4455 PARADISE ROAD | LAS VEGAS, NV | 89169 RESERVATIONS: 1.800.473.7625 (Cancellation Policy is 72 hours) To receive special rate of $85.00 + tax, Please refer to code: SIACM7 when Calling for reservations. Reservation deadline to receive this special rate is: NOVEMBER 17, 2017 -based on availability.

TRANSPORTATION: Las Vegas McCarran International Airport is served directly by shuttle, bus, and taxi (http:// Public transportation is also available for travel both to and from the airport.


CANCELLATION: Request for cancellation must be in writing to IAC and received before November 17, 2017. All cancellations are subject to a $75.00 processing fee. No refunds will be made for cancellations after November 17, 2017. Room reservations must be canceled directly through the Hard Rock Hotel.

The Hard Rock Hotel Room Reservation Code is: SIACM7 Phone: 1-800-473-7625 ONLINE RESERVATIONS CAN BE MADE AT :

2017 IAC is exempt from the hotel early check in fee, but does not guarantee rooms will be available prior to 4pm.


Seneca Nation awarded RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Seneca Nation awarded RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

The Seneca Nation of Indians was recently awarded a 2017 Robert Wood Johnson foundation Culture of Health Prize Winner.

Please visit the website to read their story, watch the video and see the photo slideshow of their impressive efforts to use culture to heal, language and food traditions to foster wellness, and compassion and culture as restorative medicine.

IAC Youth Ambassadors attend Cattlemen’s Association forum

IAC Youth Ambassadors attend Cattlemen’s Association forum

By Zachary Ilbery, IAC Intern

Recently six Intertribal Agriculture Council Youth Ambassadors had the opportunity to travel to Billings, Montana, to attend the National US Cattlemen’s Association Producer Forum where they were a part of panel discussions about risk management and trade under the new presidential administration.

They also learned about sustainable antibiotic use in livestock, conservation practices and what retailers like to see. The youth had the opportunity to meet and and talk with individuals within the agriculture industry such as Kevin Hueser, the Senior Vice President – Beef Margin Management for Tyson Foods.

The youth participants also learned about new policy taking place at the Capitol and heard from US Senate and House of Representative members about legislation affecting the cattle industry.


Pictured from left: US Cattlemen’s Association President Kenny Graner, Ellise David, Sophia Keesie, Sequoyah Osbourne, Nicholas Naranjo, Zachary Ilbery, Senior Policy Advisor for the US Cattlemen’s Association Jess Peterson.


Consultation on USDA reorganization set for NCAI

Consultation on U.S. Department of Agriculture Reorganization
National Congress of American Indians
Annual Convention and Marketplace
October 19, 2017 (6 pm CT)

Wisconsin Center, Room 103D/E
400 W Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53203

In May 2017, Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced a reorganization of key agencies in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make “USDA the most effective, efficient, and best managed department in the U.S. government.” Since the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution requesting consultation on this reorganization, USDA continues seeking ways to enhance customer service and maximize efficiency by aligning offices and agencies with similar missions. USDA will be holding a consultation regarding both phases of this reorganization and its implications on Indian Country.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact the USDA Office of Tribal Relations by phone at (202) 205-2249, or by e-mail at


Friends of IFAI present at First Americans and New Americans panel

Friends of IFAI present at First Americans and New Americans panel


Panelists, from right, Arcenio Lopez, Chairman John Berrey, Jodi Gillette and Dolores Huerta, discuss economic and environmental justice at the First Americans and New Americans convening held at the Kennedy Center.

IFAI supporters John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, and Jodi Gillette, policy advisor for Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry LLP, spoke at the First Americans and New Americans gathering on Sept. 14 held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Their panel, Advancing Our Shared Issues and Common Cause: Interdependency for Collaborative Frameworks, explored the interrelated issues of economic justice, environmental justice, and food systems and food sovereignty. The session examined interdependencies and how they can drive more powerful collaborative frameworks for action and policy.

The historic event was called to create a forward-looking convening of nationally recognized Native nation and Immigrant leaders at a pivotal time for the communities they represent. Each group contends with dominant false narratives and the destructive laws and policies borne of those narratives. The gathering encouraged these communities to learn from one another, explore opportunities for joint action, and discuss how to reshape the “American” identity to include the histories and present contributions of First Americans and New Americans.

Attendees were asked to recognize the urgency of our current political climate and the need to develop visionary, self-determined solutions. Attendees addressed shared challenges to advance a common purpose in vital areas such as civil rights, economic and environmental justice, and food systems and food sovereignty – all through a lens of culture, identity, and citizenship.



Forging Shared Narratives around Culture, Identity, and Citizenship


The National Congress of American Indians and Define American welcome Native nation and Immigrant leaders to participate in an historic conversation.


Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Cultural Performance & Leadership Reception:  6:00 – 9:00 PM EDT

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Convening:  9:00 AM – 4:00 PM EDT

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20566



Thursday, September 14

6:00             p.m.    Joint Cultural Performances at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage

  • Dark Water Rising
  • Combo Chimbita

7:00 p.m.    Leadership Reception

  • Meet & Greet
  • Art Showcase

8:00 p.m.    Arts and Culture: A National Conversation around Shared Strengths

  • Kevin Gover (Pawnee), Director, National Museum of the American Indian
  • Erika Andiola, Co-Founder of DREAM Action Coalition, Political Director of Our Revolution


Friday, September 15

MORNING SESSION: Building Collective Understandings of Our Shared Challenges

8:30 a.m.       Registration and Networking

9:00 a.m.       Welcome and Opening Prayer

  • Brian Cladoosby (Swinomish), President, National Congress of American Indians

9:10 a.m.       Spoken Word Poet

  • Nicholas Courtney (Makah and Modoc)

9:15 a.m.       Converging Narratives: Righting Our Past and Present through Story

Nationally recognized voices will share their unique and converging experiences regarding their work to reshape the “American” identity to raise up the vibrant histories and present contributions of First Americans and New Americans.

  • José Antonio Vargas, CEO, Define American (moderator)
  • Clarissa Martinez De Castro, Deputy Vice President, UnidosUS
  • Jacqueline Pata (Raven/Sockeye Clan of Tlingit Tribe), Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians

10:00 a.m.     Break – Networking

10:10 a.m.     Advancing Our Shared Issues and Common Cause: Interdependency for Collaborative Frameworks

Exploring the interrelated issues of economic justice, environmental justice, and food systems and food sovereignty, this session will examine our interdependencies and how they can drive more powerful collaborative frameworks for action and policy.

  • Maria Hinojosa, Anchor/Executive Producer, Latino USA, NPR (moderator)
  • John Berrey, Chairman, Business Committee, Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma
  • Jodi Gillette (Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota), Policy Advisor, Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP
  • Dolores Huerta, Civil Rights Activist, Co-Founder of the United Farm Workers of America
  • Arcenio Lopez, Executive Director, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project

11:15 a.m.    Q&A Session

11:35 a.m.    Framing the Afternoon’s Breakout Discussions and Collaborative Framework

This overview will set the framework for the afternoon’s breakout group discussions, which will delve into the some of the most pressing and cross-cutting issues facing Tribal and Immigrant communities today through the lens of identity, culture, and citizenship.

  • Ryan Eller, Executive Director, Define American: Introduce topics and topic leaders
  • Citizenship and Human Rights: José Antonio Vargas, CEO, Define American
  • Economic Justice: Gerald Sherman (Oglala Lakota), Founding Director, Lakota Funds
  • Identity and Race: Jonathan Jayes Green, Co-Founder and Network Coordinator, UndocuBlack Network
  • Food Systems and Food Sovereignty: Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw Nation) Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, University of Arkansas
  • Environmental Justice: TBA


LUNCH SESSION: Growing Relationships Through Food

12:00 p.m.     Food Systems Presentation and Breakout Group Member Introductions

Native and Immigrant Executive Chefs will present the meal and talk about the importance of food systems and food sovereignty as it relates to identity, culture, and citizenship.

  • Freddie Bitsoie (Diné [Navajo]), Executive Chef, Mitsitam Native Foods Café, National Museum of the American Indian
  • Cristina Martinez, Chef/Owner, Barbacoa


AFTERNOON SESSION: Developing a Framework for Joint Action

1:00 p.m.       Facilitated Breakout Discussions

2:00 p.m.       Break – Networking

2:10 p.m.       Spoken Word Poet

  • Yosimar Reyes

2:15 p.m.       Sharing with the Whole: Breakout Groups Report Out

2:50 p.m.       Deepening Our Sense of “We”: Intersectionality and Alliances Across Our Shared


Focusing on the southern U.S. border and how land connects peoples and cultures, Native and Immigrant leaders will explore alliances and points of intersectionality as it plays out within a single region.

  • Ian Record, Director, Partnership for Tribal Governance, National Congress of American Indians (moderator)
  • Erika Andiola, Co-Founder of DRM Action Coalition, Political Director of Our Revolution
  • Edward D. Manuel, Chairman, Tohono O’odham Nation

3:20 p.m.       Forging Our Next Steps for Collective Action

This session will engage in the important work of formulating a Collaborative Framework, learning how to “Show up for one another”, and identifying next steps to refining and driving our shared narratives and priorities.

  • Building Our Collaborative Framework
  • Our Top Takeaway Priorities
  • Meeting Again to Deepen Our Shared Work

3:50 p.m.       Spoken Word Poets

  • Yosimar Reyes
  • Nicholas Courtney (Makah and Modoc)

3:55 p.m.       Closing

4:00 p.m.       Adjourn

IFAI reps attend State Democratic Rural Summit

IFAI reps attend State Democratic Rural Summit

The Summit, attended by IFAI Director Janie Simms Hipp and Policy Director Colby Duren, explores ways to drive investment to rural America to grow the economy, create jobs, and improve the quality of life.

Speakers and panel discussions will focus on:

– investing in basic infrastructure like building roads, schools, and hospitals and ensuring access to critical services like health care, water and wastewater, and broadband internet;

– fostering innovations that create new jobs and businesses in the energy, health care, agricultural economies; and

– strengthening a middle-class economy that honors our commitments to seniors and veterans while attracting the next generation of farmers and ranchers, young families, workers, and small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Roughly 60 million people reside in rural America, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Rural America supply much of the food and energy and workforce that sustains our national economy. And yet there are barriers to economic opportunity for too many rural Americans.



Wednesday, September 13, 2017

902 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC


8:30 – 9:00 am

Registration and Breakfast Reception

9:00 – 9:30 am

Opening Remarks by Senate Democratic Leadership

9:30 – 10:00 am

Remarks from Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia

10:00 – 11:00 am

Panel I: Health Care in Rural America

Moderator: Mary Wakefield, Former Acting Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Senator Bob Casey, Pennsylvania

Senator Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire

Senator Bill Nelson, Florida

11:00 – 12:00 pm

Panel II: Economic Opportunities in Rural America

Moderator: Lisa Mensah, President and Chief Executive Officer,Opportunity Finance Network


Senator Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin

Senator Chris Coons, Delaware

Senator Jeff Merkley, Oregon

Senator Jon Tester, Montana

12:00 – 12:30 pm

Q&A with Steve Case, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,Revolution LLC

Hurricane Harvey Tribal Impact Update

Hurricane Harvey Tribal Impact Update

A presidential disaster declaration is in effect in counties impacted by Hurricane Harvey, an area which includes the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas. The Tribe has no unmet needs according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and water is being provided by the American Red Cross. Louisiana is experiencing heavy rainfall and many parts are saturated from recent storms. The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe and other tribes in the Louisiana region have not reported any damages.  

According to the Red Cross, water rescues are ongoing and evacuation orders are in still effect throughout the region. Numerous hospitals and nursing facilities are evacuating patients and residents. All public transportation is at a halt. Schools and airports are closed and hundreds of thousands of people are still without power.  Latest estimates indicate that at least 19,000 people sought refuge in dozens of shelters in Texas and the numbers are expected to increase.  Shelters also are open in Louisiana as bands from the storm move east.

Tribal citizens from many Native nations reside in Houston and the surrounding area, and are likely to be homeless, staying in local shelters and faced with long-term food, clothing and shelter needs. 

The NCAI encourages Indian Country to reach out to assist the unfortunate disaster victims, Native and non-Native, by contributing to the Red Cross.  At this time, financial contributions are need and the best way to support those affected. To make a financial contribution, you can visit the Red Cross or call 1-800-REDCROSS; or visit

NCAI Contact Information: Robert Holden, NCAI Deputy or (202) 466-7767 ext. 221.