Native Students Dive into Food and Agriculture Systems

Chef Sean Sherman and the youth and student leaders of the 2016 Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit
Photo credit: Bryan Pollard/Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative

Chef Sean Sherman and the youth and student leaders of the 2016 Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Nearly 100 Native American, Alaska native and Native Hawaiian students representing 51 tribes met at the University of Arkansas School of Law for a unique 10-day leadership summit to learn how food and agriculture policy impacts their tribal communities. The summit, sponsored and organized by the law school’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, is an annual event in its third year.

During the summit, students engaged with a wide variety of guest speakers who presented topics including the history of American Indian Agriculture, business planning, ethnobotany and seed preservation, legal issues in Indian Country and the importance of traditional foods.

Speakers included:

  • Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw), director of the Agriculture Initiative
  • Ross Racine (Blackfeet), executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council
  • Professor H.L. Goodwin of the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences
  • Stacy Leeds (Cherokee), dean of the School of Law
  • Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) from EchoHawk Consulting;
  • Justin Wilson (Choctaw) from the U.S. Department of the Interior
  • Mark Tilsen (Lakota Sioux) from Native American Natural Foods
  • Toni Stanger-McLaughlin (Colville), consulting attorney for the Agriculture Initiative.

The students were also treated to a presentation by Native American celebrity chef Sean Sherman (Lakota Sioux), also known as The Sioux Chef, who has become a leading advocate of preserving traditional foods and restoring  an indigenous diet. The final speaker of the summit was Arthur “Butch” Blazer (Mescalero Apache), former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment, who spoke about the importance of tribal leadership.

Odessa Oldham (Navajo), founding camp director, said the summit is vitally important to the future of Native agriculture.

“Youth today are three to four generations removed from the land. At the summit we teach the youth the importance of agriculture and how we are connected through our culture. All of our tribes are connected to agriculture, through our ties to the land,” she said. “Our future is bright ­– we just need to believe in our youth and educate them on what agriculture really is.”

Learning extended beyond the classroom through visits to several agriculture operations and food businesses including the Cattle Company and Downstream Casino greenhouses of the Quapaw Nation, a Walmart distribution center, the U of A animal and food science laboratories and the Fayetteville Farmers Market. The summit field trips were capped with a full-day excursion to Daggs Farm in Stratford, Oklahoma, where students helped install irrigation systems and learned about small-scale chicken operations, cultivating ancestral plants and the importance of good nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Zach Ilbery (Cherokee), one of the summit student leaders who runs a family-owned cattle operation in Checotah, Oklahoma, said he understands the value of the summit experience.

“The hands-on experience goes right along with the classroom work to teach students how to build a business plan from the ground up. The summit taught me that, and I’ve implemented it in my own operation. The summit can help students to start or improve their operation back home.”

The summit is sponsored by the U of A School of Law and Bumpers College, and it is funded by numerous supporting programs including the USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, Southern Extension Risk Management Education, Farm Credit, Intertribal Agriculture Council and First Nations Development Institute. Summit students receive an intensive and fun course in agriculture while getting an early glimpse at campus life and study.

 “The University of Arkansas has long been recognized nationally as the go-to institution for training the next generation of food and agricultural leaders,” Leeds said. “In keeping with that tradition, the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit has, in just three years, become a foundational program to launch the educational careers of hundreds of future contributors to agribusiness and tribal sovereignty.”  

Planning for next year’s summit is underway. Native students aged 15 to 18 who are Native American, Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian are encouraged to apply early. Please contact Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative recruitment officer Emerald Hames at or 479-575-5128 for more information.

About the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative: The initiative enhances health and wellness in tribal communities by advancing healthy food systems, diversified economic development and cultural food traditions in Indian Country. The initiative empowers tribal governments, farmers, ranchers and food businesses by providing strategic planning and technical assistance; by creating new academic and professional education programs in food systems and agriculture; and by increasing student enrollment in land grant universities in food and agricultural related disciplines.

LL.M. Program in Agricultural and Food Law: The first advanced law degree in agricultural and food law was founded at the University of Arkansas School of Law more than 30 years ago. The LL.M. Program in Food and Agricultural Law was also the first to offer a fully integrated opportunity for face-to-face and distance education options. With the LL.M. Program as the foundation, the University of Arkansas School of Law publishes the nation’s first student-edited specialized journal devoted to food law and policy issues and sustains outreach efforts such as the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the Food Recovery Project, which connect academic scholarship with critical legal and policy issues.

About University of Arkansas School of Law: The University of Arkansas School of Law prepares students for success through a challenging curriculum taught by nationally recognized faculty, unique service opportunities and a close-knit community that puts students first. With alumni in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two territories and 20 countries, it has been ranked among the top 10 "Values in Legal Education" by the National Jurist magazine for four consecutive years and is among the top 46 public law schools, according to U.S. News and World Report.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among only 2 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.


Janie Simms Hipp, director (Chickasaw)
Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative

Erin Shirl, assistant director
Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative

Bryan Pollard, director of external tribal relations (Cherokee)
Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative


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