How Native Americans are fighting a food crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic

Thosh Collins removes thorns from buckthorn cactus buds while his wife, Chelsey Luger, plays with their daughter Alo, 2, on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a few miles from their home outside Scottsdale, Ariz., on April 5, 2020. Collins and Luger founded an Indigenous wellness program called Well for Culture. (Caitlin O'Hara/The New York Times)

Getting to food has long been a challenge for the roughly 20,000 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — a 2-million-acre expanse in southern South Dakota.

For a lot of people, the nearest grocery store is a two-hour drive away. Many rely on food stamps or the Food Distribution Program on Native American reservations, a federal initiative that provides boxes of food (historically lacking in healthy options) to low-income families. The rate of diabetes runs high.

The coronavirus crisis — one case has been reported on the reservation — has only made access to food harder, as shelves of the few groceries empty out, shipments of food boxes are delayed because of supply chain disruptions, and hunting and gathering are restricted by government regulations and environmental conditions.

But the Oglala Sioux, like many other Native Americans across the country, are relying on the practices — seed saving, canning, dehydrating — that their forebears developed to survive harsh conditions with limited supplies.

“It is kind of a Catch-22 to be so well adjusted to react to threats,” said Jamie Azure, tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in Belcourt, North Dakota. “You’re forced to stay in a specific area, you’re told to trust the government, you’re told food will be scarce — welcome to 1700s Native nation.”

[Read more: Coronavirus reporting complicated by lack of street addresses on the Navajo Nation]

Big-box stores and processed foods have eroded some of the old customs. But now, faced with a disrupted food system, many Native Americans are looking to those traditions for answers.

Milo Yellow Hair, who lives in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is preparing 8,000 seedlings of local varieties of squash and corn — hearty crops with a short growing time — to plant in people’s yards.

Many residents live without electricity to run refrigerators or freezers, so to prepare for what could be weeks or months of staying indoors, he is encouraging people to dry their vegetables so they’ll keep for a while. Corn, for example, can be cooked and dried to be used as a base for soups and stews, or to make wagmiza wasna, a traditional snack in which the corn is pounded with berries and tallow.

“Here on the reservation it is a day-by-day existence,” said Yellow Hair, 70, who works for the nonprofit Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Program. “If this thing goes crazy and the external food services stop, the food we grow locally is going to be paramount to meet this need.”

Food shortages, though, are just one in a thicket of troubles on tribal lands. Many have become Superfund sites where oil spills or chemical runoffs have contaminated the groundwater. More than a century of government policies have shrunk Native American territory and taken ownership from tribal governments, contributing to the rampant poverty and poor health care on many reservations.

The coronavirus emergency is dire for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, which as of Monday had 698 cases and 24 deaths.

[Read more: Mobile coronavirus testing dispatched to hard-hit Navajo Nation]

Many residents lack running water and electricity, and all were under a 57-hour curfew that ended Monday morning. “People are told to self-isolate at home with no drinking water and not enough food,” said Denisa Livingston, a counselor for Slow Food International in Fruitland, New Mexico, who helps her fellow Native Americans grow their own food.

The Navajo Nation has mobilized what resources it has. Residents with gardens are making their crops available to others. Some are assembling care packages for elders that include ingredients for fry bread, a Navajo staple with a complicated history, as it was created using rations from the federal government.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has a strong tradition of canning local crops like beets, cucumbers and carrots, and some families are known for their expertise. Many are donating their stockpiles to those on the reservation in need.

“You don’t think twice about it,” said Azure, the tribal chairman. “And then when the COVID-19 threat comes through, you realize how important all of this is.”

In Alaska, the Athabaskan peoples have long dealt with brutal, protracted winters by preserving produce and freezing meats. Cynthia Erickson, who is Athabaskan and an owner of the only grocery store in her village, Tanana, has a freezer full of moose, caribou and whitefish.

But she has been struggling to get her usual wholesale suppliers to fill orders. The tribe may ask Gov. Mike Dunleavy to open moose hunting season (which normally begins in August or September) early if the food supply runs low, she said.

“My grandparents had 12 kids and a little cabin, and they survived hunting beavers, moose and fish,” Erickson, 56, said. They boiled hooves and legs to make broth. “We are tough people.”

White corn production is ramping up on the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin’s reservation, in the eastern part of the state. The crop is sacred to the Oneida Nation and is a long-standing staple because of its many nutrients. Rebecca and Stephen Webster, a Native American married couple who own a 10-acre farm that grows white corn and other produce, have been giving their prized seeds to families on the reservation in exchange for whatever they can offer, even if it’s just a jar of jam.

On the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, in southeastern Arizona, many homes are low-income units where residents say they have been told that gardens aren’t allowed. (Isaiah Belknap, a manager for the San Carlos Housing Authority, said home gardens are allowed but basic maintenance is expected, like attending to overgrown weeds.)

Gardening “is our sovereignty right,” said Twila Cassadore, a forager and educator on the reservation. “I live in a housing unit, and I have a big garden. I don’t care. Come and throw me in jail. I am still going to feed my family.”

Some Native Americans are trying to strengthen systems for local food distribution. The Quapaw Nation, in Oklahoma, has donated some of the meat from its processing plant to its elder nutrition program, to ensure that those most vulnerable are getting enough protein.

Rowen White, program director for the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, a national group that collects and grows heirloom seeds, has expanded her efforts in Akwesasne, New York, on the Canadian border, home to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort, one of the tribe’s primary means of revenue, closed in mid-March in response to the virus, leaving many locals jobless. The reservation is also downriver from a former General Motors factory that is now a Superfund site.

White used to receive about a dozen requests for seeds every few months, but that number has grown to 600. She is packaging seed collections that include Native American corn, beans and squash (known as the “three sisters” because they are often planted and eaten together) and teaching online gardening classes.

The Intertribal Agriculture Council, based in Montana, is also helping to expand the federal food-distribution program to include goods from indigenous producers in the hopes of putting more money in the hands of tribes and providing healthier options. Organizations like Running Strong for American Indian Youth have fortified existing programs that deliver nutritious food boxes to reservations.

But the virus has complicated those efforts, too. Some reservations are requiring that food boxes coming from outside be quarantined for several days. On some reservations that are under stay-at-home orders, there aren’t enough volunteers to deliver the food and not enough personal protective equipment to go around.

“We are already so remote,” Livingston, the Navajo counselor, said. If big cities are struggling with equipment and personnel, she asked, how will the reservations get by?

Even Native Americans living in those cities are practicing traditional methods to feed themselves and others.

(Caitlin O'Hara | The New York Times) Thosh Collins prepares venison burgers with i’itoi onions on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a few miles from their home outside Scottsdale, Ariz., on April 5, 2020. Collins and his wife, Chelsey Luger, founded an Indigenous wellness program called Well for Culture.

Hillel Echo-Hawk, 33, is Pawnee and Athabaskan and owns a Seattle catering and private-chef company, Birch Basket. To cut down on trips to the grocery store, she has started foraging in her backyard, a skill she was taught as a child. She is harvesting cedarwood and irises to brew into tea, and dandelions to sauté.

After much of his work dried up, Brian Yazzie, a private chef in St. Paul, Minnesota, who is Navajo, decided to volunteer at Gatherings Café in Minneapolis, which is feeding Native American seniors. He is cooking almost exclusively with traditional Native ingredients, making stew out of tepary beans from Ramona Farms in Sacaton, Arizona, and cooking elderberries into a sauce for barbecue chicken.

“Indigenous peoples survived colonization” and so have their food and ingredients, Yazzie, 33, said. “Practicing our foodways is a sign of resiliency.”

Thosh Collins and Chelsey Luger, a married couple who founded an indigenous wellness program called Well for Culture, live near Scottsdale, Arizona, an affluent city where they have access to high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods Market.

Still, they have been taking daily drives to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, where Collins, 37, grew up, to harvest cactus buds, berries and wild onions. Collins owns land on the reservation where he and Luger, 32, plan to build a house within the next year or so. Despite the food hardships that have beset Native Americans for so long, Luger said they are uniquely positioned to weather the pandemic.

“We’re not as far away from our traditional ways of life as most Americans are,” she said. “Our sense of community and family is as strong as ever.”

“As this pandemic continues to grow,” she added, “I can tell you that I feel safer on the reservation than anywhere else.”