Decolonizing the North American Food System

The colonization of North America by Europeans began at the end of the 15th century, continuing into the 18th century. Colonizers forced their values, religions, laws, and culture upon Indigenous peoples, seizing Indigenous land and limiting Indigenous peoples’ access to resources, including their traditional food systems.

The repercussions of colonization on Indigenous peoples, and on the land, animals, and ecosystems of North America continue to reverberate today, impacting Indigenous culture and health, animal welfare, biodiversity loss, and climate change. As a result, there is now a movement to decolonize food systems by returning land and resource sovereignty to Indigenous people, and to protect nature, animals, Indigenous culture, and traditional diets.

Transforming the US food system to right the wrongs of colonization would challenge harmful social legacies of exploitation and exclusion of BIPOC[i] communities from traditional foodways, farming access, and land sovereignty. At the same time, a move toward decolonization of food systems in North America would also imply reshaping dominant US practices of animal farming and animal food consumption, both of which reflect the influence of European food traditions and farming norms.

By restoring pre-colonial relationships between human and nonhuman animals and re-balancing power dynamics in food access and land management, decolonization of the US food system offers pathways to justice and better health for Indigenous people, animals, and the environment.


Prior to the arrival of European colonizers, millions of bison (later incorrectly deemed buffalo by Europeans, a term that persists today) roamed much of North America. These animals were a key part of life and culture for many Indigenous tribes and played a crucial role in the ecological balance of the land. In the early 1800s, US bison herds were observed to include tens of thousands of animals, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, which describes them as having been “extremely plentiful in North America, with peak population estimates ranging in the millions.” By the late 19th century, due to overhunting by the Europeans, “their numbers were in the low hundreds, to the extent that perhaps less than 100 remained.”

This overhunting was carried out in great part to clear the land for colonial agriculture, as well as to weaken the Indigenous people. The US wanted Indigenous people to be “docile,” writes J. Weston Phippen for The Atlantic, and “to take up farming on the reservations and stay put.”

Animal agriculture, in particular, was used as a tool of colonization, writes Indigenous author Mansour Yarow, for Sentient Media, “to disrupt our food systems and leave us food insecure on reservations.” Yarow, a member of the Diné tribe, explains that “meat and dairy were fed to Indigenous children in boarding schools as an effort to ‘civilize’ us and disconnect us from our agricultural history.” Yarow points to messaging from Antonio De Mendoza, first Viceroy of New Spain, to the Spanish king in the 1530s, who “boasted of plans to take our land: ‘May your Lordship realize that if cattle is allowed, the Indians will be destroyed.’”

The Colonial Basis Of THE FARMED-MEAT DIET

“Food was a principal tool of colonization,” echoes Dr. Linda Alvarez for Food Empowerment Project. “Arguably, one cannot properly understand colonization without taking into account the issue of food and eating.” She explains that Europeans believed  “food shaped the colonial body,” and “as the Spanish arrived in the ‘new world’ and initiated the European colonization of the Americas, they also brought with them the notion of cultural and class-based distinctions that were founded on the types of food people ate.” For example, she continues, meat was considered by colonizers to be a superior food, while many plant-based foods, including those consumed by the Indigenous people, were considered inferior. Staple Indigenous foods, such as maize and beans, she says, were considered “’famine foods,’[1] fit for consumption only if all other ‘right foods’ had been thoroughly exhausted.”

As a result of this way of thinking, vast swaths of Indigenous land were reshaped as pasture to support European breeds of livestock, including the non-native cow, to satisfy the preferred tastes of the colonizers. “And selective breeding programs meant the bodies of these animals fattened faster and could be stored more easily in refrigerated holds,” writes Paul Young for The Conversation. In other words, he says, “farmed animals were bred with their carcasses in mind.”

This mass breeding and farming of animals to satisfy a farmed-meat-centered culture is rooted in colonial thinking and still dominates our Western food system today.


Today, colonial-rooted industrialized animal farming continues to inflict harm upon animals, humans, water, and land. “The ways of industrialized farming are far removed from the ways of Indigenous traditions,” writes Ashley Chisholm, a member of the Red River Metis and Anishinaabe people. “Much like colonialism, industrialized farming and slaughter are built upon supremacy and violence—a colonial creation that goes against the beliefs of Indigenous peoples—which include respecting animals, causing the least harm, and only hunting enough to survive.” She adds that “as trees are burned and ripped from the earth to make room for more farms and slaughterhouses, more Indigenous people are ripped from their own land, leaving many with little to no resources, and for some a culture in crisis.”


Current mass farming operations, typically owned by large corporations, often exist in spaces more likely to be inhabited by people of color, including Indigenous people. “When they hear about industrial pollution, people often think about factories with billowing smokestacks. However, the food industry, with its factory farms and slaughterhouses, can also be considered a major contributor of pollution that affects the health of Black and Brown communities and low-income communities,” states Food Empowerment Project, “because more often than not, they locate their facilities in the areas where these people live.” 

For example, in North Carolina, ranked second in the US for pig production, a 2014 study found Indigenous people were 2.18 times more likely to live within 3 miles of an industrial pig farm than white people.

For many years, members of the Yakama Indian Nation who live near large animal farms in Washington State have faced health threats from groundwater polluted with nitrates in part by poor manure management by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and industrial dairy farms operating in the Lower Yakima Valley.[2] Indigenous people and environmental groups continue to fight today in that region for stronger environmental regulations to adequately protect local water.


Industrialized farms can also have particularly detrimental effects on Indigenous resources, says Chisholm, “by polluting the air, water, and land. Pollution can poison fish and other animals, disrupting entire ecosystems.” In addition to polluting surface water and groundwater, the waste products from CAFOs and industrial dairies endanger the health and well-being of nearby communities by producing noxious odors, damaging air quality, and increasing potential for dangerous pathogen exposure.[3]

The Colorado River crisis provides one ongoing example of a worsening water conflict driven in part by animal farming, which particularly negatively impacts Indigenous groups. In the Colorado River Basin, there are 30 federally recognized tribes, twenty-two of which have recognized rights to use 3.2 million-acre feet of the Colorado River system water annually, or approximately 22 to 26 percent of the Basin’s average annual water supply. However, 11 of those tribes continue to deal with unresolved water rights claims.[4]

All the while, the Colorado River is now experiencing unprecedented drought due in part to water overuse. Considered the lifeblood of the US Southwest, the waterway provides electricity to millions of people, as well as drinking water and food for both humans and animals. Among its many uses, the river also provides water to sustain the 14 million cattle raised in the region annually. A report published by Nature states that 79% of water in the Colorado River Basin is used for irrigation, and about half of that is for “alfalfa hay and haylage,” crops used for cattle feed.


Moving Indigenous people off of their lands and away from their own food systems has continued to impact their diet and overall health. Colonial efforts to control Indigenous people “has forced changes to Indigenous diets through food availability, the residential school system, the creation of the reserve system, and the introduction of poor-quality market-based foods at exorbitant prices.” [5]

Professor Margaret Robinson, a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe, notes in her talk Indigenous Veganism: Feminist Natives Do Eat Tofu, that the reserve system in Canada “resulted in a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates and low in protein and fiber. As a result, Mi’kmaq people have seen a serious increase in diabetes and gallstones.” Today, she says, “we see Aboriginal restaurants that have bologna, wieners, and canned meat wrapped in fry bread on their menu. What we’re doing is traditionalizing our own poverty.”

These diet changes have real consequences. Today, according to the National Congress of American Indians, Indigenous people suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease than any other group in the US.


Indigenous people across North America are now fighting to take back control over their own food systems. “Across the nation, Native American communities are prioritizing ‘food sovereignty’ initiatives to support food security for their members, and to promote healthy eating, economic and employment opportunities, and the preservation of cultural and natural resources,” states a Yakama Nation press release.

One such effort is a decade-long fight taken up by Native American farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), starting in 1999. The class action lawsuit alleged discrimination against Native Americans regarding their access to and participation in USDA’s farm loan programs. By 2010, the USDA was made to pay $680 million in compensation. In a White House statement at the time, President Barack Obama called the agreement “an important step forward in remedying USDA’s unfortunate civil rights history.”

In 2016, then-President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, making the American bison the National Mammal of the US. At the time, John Calvelli with the Wildlife Conservation Society said, “the adoption of the bison as our National Mammal represents a validation of the many meaningful ways this animal represents America. As an ecological keystone, cultural symbol, and economic driver, the bison conveys values such as unity, resilience, and commitment to healthy landscapes and communities.”

Transitioning guardianship of bison herds to those who know them best is key in restoring damaged ecological balance and lost culture. In 2022, after decades of negotiations, Indigenous peoples with the Salish and Kootenai tribes were finally able to reclaim management of the National Bison Range, through federal law. The National Bison Range is a 19,000-acre preserve in the center of the Flathead Indian Reservation, and since 1908, tribal members had been excluded from management of the herd. “The return of the Bison Range to these tribes is a triumph and a testament to what can happen when we collaboratively work together to restore balance to ecosystems that were injured by greed and disrespect,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland told the Montana Free Press.

From an environmental perspective, recent studies have highlighted how the restoration of native wildlife, including the bison, along with the removal of non-native species such as cattle, can assist in restoring ecological balance in spaces where industrial agriculture has caused great harm.[6] “Agriculture is the greatest threat to biodiversity in the world,” the Center for Biological Diversity’s Jennifer Molidor explained to Planet Friendly News, “because it is responsible for so much land use. It destroys forests and grasslands, transforms landscapes, degrades ecosystems, fragments habitat, and eliminates food sources for wildlife.” Alternatively, rewilding results in healthier soil, cleaner water, less agriculture-driven pollution, and biodiversity restoration.


Beyond the bison, some Indigenous people across North America are also looking back at pre-colonial diets and exploring their plant-based roots. The Diné people, for example, also known as the Navajo, “are perhaps best known for herding sheep and weaving wool. Yet it turns out this legacy was greatly influenced by European colonizers,” writes Yarow. “The Diné people were not always sheepherders—we have a lesser-known history that predates this colonial era, a history very much rooted in a plant-based way of life.” In fact, prior to colonization, the Diné largely farmed and ate plant foods such as corn, squash, and beans, known by many Indigenous cultures of North America as “The Three Sisters” because of their ecological complementarity when planted together.

In an effort to return to a more traditional diet, in part to counter damage caused by modern eating habits, such as diabetes, some Diné people have returned to this plant-focused way of eating. Caroline Trapp, director of diabetes education for the Physicians Committee, told ICT News of Diné families who had “reversed their diabetes and changed their lives by returning to a diet rich in traditional native foods —vegetables, fruit, legumes, and ancient grains.”

The movement to reclaim food sovereignty is gaining traction among the Diné today by growing, distributing, preparing, and eating their own traditional foods and relying less on high-priced meat, dairy, and processed foods. “It’s just getting back to our roots,” Tyrone Thompson, owner of Ch’ishie Farms told NBC News, “our traditional ways, as well as adopting innovative ways like the hoop houses.” Ch’ishie Farms is a regenerative, organic family farm that grows food and helps other Indigenous growers in Northern Arizona. 

Robinson also uses a forward-facing lens to look back on and reinterpret traditional Indigenous ways. She discusses reconciling her veganism with her traditionally meat-heavy Mi’kmaq culture by diving into traditional stories and “see[ing] my veganism as a spiritual practice that reflects the fact that humans and other animals possess a shared personhood”—a common theme in Mi’kmaq legends.

Robinson explains that Mi’kmaq people no longer live what she terms a “primordial” lifestyle and defining Aboriginality in that way “reflects our intentional extinction as a people.” “There’s more to my culture and to my relationship with the land, particularly as a woman than hunting and killing animals”, she says. “Those who value only preserving Aboriginal tradition join with colonialism in seeing no place for a contemporary indigeneity.”

Instead, being able “to reinterpret our traditions, our rituals,” says Robinson, is what “enabled our ancestors to survive genocide, famine, disease, forced moves, reserves, residential schooling, and a host of other colonial ills.” That continued ability to reinterpret is what led Robinson to the conclusion that: “Since the consumption of animals for food, clothing, and shelter is no longer necessary, as vegan culture demonstrates, then the Mi’kmaq tradition, as manifested in our legends, suggests that hunting and killing our animal brothers is no longer authorized.”

The practice of looking back on traditional Indigenous teachings with a new perspective that rejects colonial human-animal relationships has been gaining momentum among some Indigenous people for years. For The Vegetarian Journal in 1994, Dr. Rita Laws wrote: 

What would this country be like today if the ancient ways were still observed? I believe it is fair to say that the Indian respect for non-human life forms would have had a greater impact on American society. Corn, not turkey meat, might be the celebrated Thanksgiving Day dish. Fewer species would have become extinct, the environment would be healthier, and Indian and non-Indian Americans alike would be living longer and healthier lives. There might also be less sexism and racism, for many people believe that, as you treat your animals (the most defenseless), so you will treat your children, your women, and your minorities […] Now we, their descendants, must recapture the spirit of the ancient traditions for the benefit of all people. We must move away from the European influences that did away with a healthier style of living. We must again embrace our brothers and sisters, the animals, and “return to the corn” once and for all.


Today, efforts to decolonize diets and food systems have become part of the broader food justice movement, with a specific focus on empowering BIPOC populations to regain food sovereignty. Groups including Food First, Food Empowerment Project, Food Secure Canada, The US Food Sovereignty Alliance, and many others are working in a variety of ways to decolonize and democratize current oppressive food systems that rely heavily on industrialization and the mass oppression of animals. Food Secure Canada, for example, works under seven specific pillars: To focus on food for people (beyond a commodity); build (upon traditional) knowledge and skill; work with nature; value food providers; localize food systems; place control locally; and recognize that food is sacred. 

There are also individualized efforts being made to resist food inequalities and regain power from industrialized animal agriculture in the form of cookbooks, such as Decolonize Your Diet, Afro Vegan, and The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.

Some Indigenous people are taking a personal stand against industrial animal farming by opting out of participating in it altogether. “Today, I am vegan as a Diné person,” writes Yarow, “as an act of protest and opposition to the oppressive systems that exploit humans, animals, and the natural world. By recognizing our animal siblings as one of our own, we reject the colonial idea of anthropocentrism and live in a more harmonious existence with the world around us.”

[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.

[1] Heather Trigg, “Food Choice and Social Identity in Early Colonial New Mexico,” Journal of the Southwest, 2004, 223–52,

[2] Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee, “Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Program,” accessed May 31, 2023,

[3] Carrie Hribar, “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities,” 2010,

[4] Water & Tribes Initiative, “The Status of Tribal Water Rights in the Colorado River Basin,” Policy Brief #4 (The Water & Tribes Initiative, April 9, 2021),

[5] Tabitha Robin et al., “Safe Food, Dangerous Lands? Traditional Foods and Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” Frontiers in Communication 6 (2021),

[6] William J. Ripple et al., “Rewilding the American West,” BioScience 72, no. 10 (2022): 931–35,

About the author

Stray Dog Institute

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

About the Author

To cultivate dignity, justice, and sustainability in the food system, Stray Dog Institute provides nonprofit allies with funding, strategic research, and opportunities for collaboration. Together, we hope to build a more compassionate world for people, animals, and the environment.

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