Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member Mary Belle Zook spent her childhood on a farm in the Oklahoma panhandle, raising show animals and participating in the National FFA Organization. She graduated from Oklahoma State University with an agricultural communications degree in 2015.
“Growing up, I was very interested in ag law, and there was actually someone who came and presented on wind energy in Oklahoma and whether that was going to be a mineral right or land right. I geeked out on that,” she said.
Now serving as the communications director for the Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative through the University of Arkansas School of Law, she brings together her skills, passions, agricultural background and Tribal heritage each day to help Native farmers and producers.
Agriculture as sovereignty
As part of the University of Arkansas School of Law, the IFAI works with Indigenous communities across the country to help them establish and expand Tribal food systems as well as implement federally funded programs.
“We are the back office legal and policy nerds, so we have quite a few attorneys on staff and folks who love to read legislation and see how that’s going to impact Indian Country. I kind of knew that that would be a good fit for me,” Zook said.
They also work with the Native Farm Bill Coalition, which represents the interests of Native populations while working with the federal government to write and pass the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill outlines policy and funding on a national level for agriculture, including food assistance programs, natural resources and more under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Congress revisits it every five years.
According to Zook, the IFAI and Native Farm Bill Coalition hope to increase the number of provisions for Indian Country in the 2023 version of the law. The 2018 Farm Bill included 63 mentions that positively impact Tribes and Tribal producers.
“We are doing the research, getting in there and digging in deep and providing information to our partners who then can help equip tribal leaders and tribal producers with knowledge to help make a change. But our main goal is just to have a strong united voice in the Farm Bill,” she said.
The IFAI also assists tribes wanting to write their own governmental food code, provides presentations on beginning a tribal agricultural program, offers training on various aspects of food production, assists food operation expansions and more — all with tribal sovereignty as a top priority.
“Communities are reclaiming their traditions, they’re working with the federal government to find different ways of being able to implement their traditions into management practices,” Zook said. “There’s just a lot of momentum forward right now when it comes to food and agriculture and food sovereignty across Indian Country. And I think it’s because we do have that mindset of the next seven generations. We do have that mindset of wanting to take care of all of our relations, not seeing any plant or animal as lower than us and actually being more intelligent than us.”
Family and food
The Bourassa family descendant connected with her Native heritage later in life. Due to assimilation and forced relocation, many Citizen Potawatomi tell the same story of their exposure to Potawatomi culture. However, her career with the IFAI allows her to remain near CPN headquarters. Zook wants a different experience for her daughter, who gets exposure to Bodéwadmimwen (Potawatomi language) through the Tribe at 2 years old.
“She’s been the first one in our family for generations to be able to do that at a young age,” she said. “I’m just incredibly blessed that she’s able to do that and that we’re able to live here in Shawnee where the Tribe is.”
Her job requires traveling to Indigenous communities across North America and includes opportunities to spend time on Anishnabe homelands around the Great Lakes. Zook had a “super powerful and meaningful” experience kayaking out on Lake Superior in 2022, and it made her think about her family’s ancestral connections to the land and the sustenance it provides.
“As an Anishnabe kwe (woman), I’m thinking about, and other (Indigenous) folks are also thinking about, the past seven generations and the future seven generations. I want to be able to help leave this world better than what’s been given to me. I want my daughter to be able to have clean water and food. I want my great-grandchildren to have that, too,” Zook said.
She finds Indigenous people’s ancestral connection to their homelands hard to explain but encourages Tribal members to experience it for themselves. She believes it can change someone’s viewpoint on food, agriculture and resources.
“I just think as Indigenous people, we look at things a little bit differently than the rest of the world,” Zook said. “And it’s also been just incredible to get to go out to all of the different communities and learn about how they’re doing things and some of their traditions and stories and knowledge that they have. And I think it’s going to take all of that coming together to be able to survive in the future.”
Across Indian Country
Zook’s position presents the unique opportunity to visit Indigenous communities from coast to coast to see their agricultural operations, help them start new ones and understand how federal agricultural policy affects their efforts on the ground.
“Literally, I’ve seen more of this country than I have in my entire life in the past year. It’s just been an incredible experience to be able to do that,” she said.
IFAI assisted the Osage Nation in northeastern Oklahoma with writing tribal food code to meet the needs of Osage citizens, expand sovereignty and create economic opportunities.
“They’re doing some incredible stuff with agriculture,” Zook said. “They were able to open a meat processing facility in eight months from concept, to build, to opening the door, which is just absolutely unheard of. But having that tribal food code as a foundation is critical to helping tribes do things like what the Osage Nation did.”
Visiting the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin on the Red Cliff Reservation, she saw fishermen and women using vertical integration in their business model. They fish, process and sell their product from their own storefront, creating a market that directly serves their tribal members. Zook describes agricultural practices across Indian Country as “vibrant” and “flourishing in their own way.”
“It’s inspiring, though, because I’m seeing tribes that had those negative experiences that are now coming up with solutions so that if anything happens in the future, they’re not in the same place because you cannot be truly sovereign if you cannot feed your people,” she said.
As climate change affects more people and the human population increases, Zook finds hope in a new generation of Indigenous citizens working to feed everyone in healthy and sustainable ways with practices known to their people since their history began.
“Seeing people being able to enter into agriculture, having new farmers, new producers, people figuring out different ways to work together, reestablishing some of those traditional trade networks; it’s just been incredible to see that and to know that we had a small part in that, just helping elevate voices and bring people together,” she said.
Find out more about the Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative at indigenousfoodandag.com.