By TEDDYE SNELL
When the Cherokees rebuilt their nation 150 years ago following the Trail of Tears, they immediately went to work re-establishing a government, along with higher education and court systems.
Stacy Leeds, Cherokee citizen and dean of the College of Law at the University of Arkansas, said that while history reveres the Cherokee judges, scholars and lawmakers of the time, most Cherokee citizens were farmers.
Leeds gave a presentation Friday about tribal governance, land use, food and agriculture police and economic development during the 42nd annual Symposium of the American Indian at Northeastern State University. The luncheon was hosted by the NSU Chapter of American Indian Students in Science and Engineering, and Leeds offered the AISES students food for thought about where their careers could be going.
“My intent today is, I see a trend where I think the skills of future AISES students will be front and center,” said Leeds.
Leeds explained briefly the history of the Cherokees after removal, and talked about how they immediately went about establishing a government, a seminary and a court system to handle infrastructure and commerce, and trade with outside entities.
“By if you study what was really going on locally, most people weren’t lawyers or judges,” said Leeds. “My family, like most Cherokees, didn’t have many graduates of the seminary, as the education system was still for the elite. So what did they do? Most of them farmed. We were absolutely excellent at making our own living, feeding ourselves and taking care of our communities.”
Leeds explained many tribes were not as fortunate. They often were removed to U.S. government-controlled reservations, where local tribal government control did not exist.
Over time, the Cherokee government helped establish an infrastructure for its farmers to help regulate the supply of goods, including ports of commerce, security for the highways and loans for farmers.
“We had a host of business and land laws to help economic development,” said Leeds. “We owned our land in fee, meaning the federal government had no control over what we did with it. What changed? The federal government wanted to do away with the tribe.”
Leeds explained that as a result of this desire, the federal government abolished tribal courts; forced a radical change in property law through the land allotment system that was open to taxation and regulation; and abolished the tribe’s higher education system when Indian Territory became Oklahoma.
“One allotment myth that circulated at the time is that the federal government wanted to parcel the land out to teach Indians to be efficient landowners,” Leeds said.
At the time, she said, many farmers owned acreages far in excess of the 180-acre allotments being doled out by the U.S. government.
“As a result, agriculture production declined,” said Leeds. “And I’m standing on a campus governed by the state, rather than the department of education of the Cherokee Nation.”
Leeds pointed to the trend for Native Americans to pay closer attention to food sources, mentioning that many people are making a concentrated effort to buy fresh and local as a healthier choice.
“So, how does AISES fit in?” asked Leeds. “Tribal governments are making tremendous strides in self-governance, setting up infrastructure for economic success and providing revenue streams that guide us toward self-sufficiency. Most of that has come from gaming. I can look across Indian Country at the professional people running gaming and would put them up against any professional in the industry. What we need now is a second level of professionals in food production. We really need Indian agriculture economic people, people involved in water quality, and biotechnology, etc. Engineers are key to our future food sovereignty.”
Leeds pointed out that if you take a map of U.S. food deserts – places where people do not have access to a supermarket or grocery store within a mile of their homes – and superimpose it over a map of Indian Country, you’ll find Indian Country is one big food desert.
“So the question becomes, how are we going to get food to our people, or get people to our food?” said Leeds. “What’s interesting is that according to 2012 agriculture Census data, there are 80,000 Indian agriculture producers, which is the single fastest-growing demographic. We have 12,000 Native American youth involved in Future Farmers of American, and 60,000 Native American youth involved in 4-H. What can we do to support them? What can we do to create a professional class to provide infrastructure? We need professionals in food safety, ag engineering, nutrition analysis and supply-chain management. I know it’s a lot to digest, but we need to investigate how to be a sustainable food tribe. I think it’s a very exciting thing to think about.”