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Restoring Narragansett Tribal Health & Wellness Through Food Security & Food Sovereignty

Our vision is to grow & provide food to Narragansett Tribal members to reduce food insecurity, promote food sovereignty & provide education.

Photo of Summer Gonsalves
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Narragansett Indian Tribe

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Other

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Brown University, Shinnecock Indian Tribe of Long Island

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Providence, Rhode Island

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Narragansett Indian Tribal reservation, in Charlestown, Rhode Island, which consists of 7.3km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

As a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, I chose this place in an effort to give back to my community. Since time immemorial, tribal members have continuously maintained a balance of sharing and trading their harvests in an effort to feed not just themselves or their households, but to feed all those around them. This tradition ensured tribal members maintained their traditional diet and their connection to the land and resources around them. 

Through colonization, historical trauma, laws, and other forces beyond our control, our connection to the land and foods once plentiful has severely diminished. I chose this place to maintain our ancestral connections and to implement practices now that will feed the next seven generations of Narragansett Tribal members.  

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

To date, there is no housing on the Narragansett Tribal reservation. The reservation houses the administration building, a health center, daycare, senior center, meal site, police department, natural resources, a church and our Long House. We have two freshwater ponds, Deep and Schoolhouse Pond. In 2016, a hydroponics greenhouse was installed on the reservation that ceased function in 2019. Additionally, we own a 300-acre (1.21km^2) farm in Westerly, Rhode Island, that we acquired in 2014. The farm is in the infantile stages of remediation and set-up.

To be eligible for most tribal offered services, tribal members must reside within Washington County, a rural county encompassing the reservation. However, the 2010 census shows that most tribal members residing in the state live in Providence County, an urban area, offering more affordable housing options. The support for my project would ensure that any tribal members residing within Rhode Island would be eligible to be serviced.

The goal of this project is to reconnect tribal members with traditional foods from our ancestral diet. This includes foods garnered through hunting, gathering, foraging, fishing, shell-fishing, and growing. From venison (deer), turkey, rabbit, quail, crabs, quahogs, lobster, berries, corn, beans, squash, and the list could go on. These foods were once plentiful and are now harder to come by in the wild, further pushing the Narragansetts away from their traditional diet.

With the loss of foods comes the loss of culture and the loss of our stories. The very parts needed to make us unique as Native Americans. We begin to lose our connection to the land and knowing how to navigate it. This transition has led to a more sedentary lifestyle, not just for the Narragansett’s but for most Native Tribes across the United States. This change has further led to negative health impacts. A needs assessment done within the Narragansett Indian Tribe in 2017 found that tribal members are approximately 27% food insecure. That is more than double the state average for Rhode Island, where approximately 11% of residents are food insecure. However, the findings for the Narragansett Tribe are aligned with a study conducted by Valerie Bluebird Jernigan, who found that nationwide, approximately 25% of Native Americans are food insecure. The change in our diet has led to diet related diseases within the tribe, such as high rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

It is the hope of my people to remove some of the barriers placed upon us through mainstream society. To begin re-growing and harvesting of our traditional foods. To offer opportunities to reconnect not only with the land, but with one another. To share stories, song, dance, and food more than we currently do. All the while, reducing food insecurity and health disparities while reclaiming food sovereignty.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

At the present time, the main challenge to the Narragansett's is the environment. Land loss and land degradation have both had a huge impact on the tribal members relationship with the land. Lack of access to waters once fished and shell-fished has driven tribal members away from our salt ponds and the ocean. We do not hold title to our inherent water rights and are instead held to the same laws and regulations regarding fishing and shell-fishing as non-tribal members. Meaning, we can no longer just go to the water and harvest to feed our people. Instead, we must purchase fishing and shell-fishing licenses, various stamps, and we are limited in the amount we can harvest. This is detrimental to the Narragansett's as a people who historically did not go to the water to feed just themselves. They would go to feed extended families and tribal members who are unable to go out for themselves for varying reasons.

Additionally, access to the water has dwindled. Primarily through land holdings now being private property, or laws being put in place, denying everyone access to waterways. These measures have only limited the Narragansett's ability to self-gather. Over the last century, the land around the reservation not owned by tribal members has been developed to become houses and housing complexes and further reduces the radius of land in which tribal members can hunt and forage on and around the reservation.

The shift away from the land has only further impacted our traditional diet. We are limited in what we can take and things that once were plentiful on our lands, such as pheasant and quail, sassafras and berry patches, are becoming scarcer or seize to exist. As previously referenced, when we lose our connections to the land, we lose pieces of our culture, our identity and our connection with those around us. While these are problems now, left unchanged, they will continue to be problems in 2050. Eventually, we will become a nation with a generation who will only have stories of the ways life once was. The divide shifting away from the land will continue to grow if we fail to address the issues at hand and bridge the gap.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Started in October 2018, Of the Earth Harvest Boxes were my initial approach to bringing awareness of our situation to tribal members. Harvest Boxes are a traditional spin on government commodity boxes. Rather than offering canned and boxed goods, highly processed foods or foods that are calorically dense, Harvest Boxes offer foods grown primarily in Rhode Island, acquired through farmers markets and partnerships with local farms and businesses, in addition to one of our sister tribes, The Shinnecock Tribe of Long Island.

Harvest Box foods are grown and purchased in and around Rhode Island, which were once historically inhabited by the Narragansett. This gives the notion of eating foods from the land in which we are connected to as a people. Several tribal members or friends of the Narragansett’s and a few small markets have become contributors, through donation of time, effort, and food products to include in the boxes.

Currently, Harvest Boxes are donated to tribal elders quarterly and include a variety of fresh produce, meat, teas, recipes, and specialty items such as honey and maple syrup. Most of the foods included in the Harvest Boxes are hand-picked, purchased, packaged and hand delivered to tribal homes. When the program first started, 30 boxes were donated to 30 elder households, feeding approximately 85 tribal members. When the boxes last went out in October 2019, we grew the program and delivered 63 boxes and fed 173 tribal members.

With the support and new partnership with the Brown University Superfund and the Brown University Community Engagement Core, the current goal is to grow and expand the program to  target 100 tribal households and to begin servicing families with children and not just the elder households. The support from Brown is only to sustain the program for one year, beginning in January 2020. It is my job to find resources to continue to grow the program, but more importantly, to make the program self-sustaining. We have the structure on the tribal reservation to grow foods but lack the resources to adequately do so in a sustainable way.

My Vision will give us the resources to use our land to grow our own food, for inclusion in the Harvest Boxes. Primarily, we are targeting the hydroponics greenhouse, as the turn around from pod to table is quicker then growing in the more traditional sense, on the farm. The farm will be a backup food source for growing and perhaps one day, to raise livestock for inclusion in the Harvest Boxes. When we start addressing our immediate needs, we address the long-term systemic needs of the tribal population. Fixing our diet in the here and now, will fix our health down the road. Educating our youth today will empower our leaders in the generations to come.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

It is common knowledge among Native Americans, that food is our binding factor. Every tribal event, function, gathering, or celebration is done so with food. Some of these events have more traditional foods, clam bakes, johnnycakes and succotash, clam chowder, sassafras tea; whereas others have a more modern diet with limited traditional foods present, replaced with hamburgers and hot dogs, soda and juice.

When we eat healthier, we live healthier. When our physical health is in order, our mental and emotional health vastly improves. When we as a people come up with our own solutions to our problems, we as a nation flourish. For centuries, we have been told how to do things or how not to do things, with little regard for the cultural significance of our practices, customs and traditions. Addressing these challenges gives us the tools to restore the balance between who we descend from and who we are today. It restores the balance of the resources lost and the resources we can garner through effort, commitment and dedication to the cause.

Addressing these challenges reconnects us to the land we collectively call ours. Regrowth will be seen not only in the people and on the land, but in the stories, we are able to pass down to our children and our grandchildren. Through changing our diet, we change our health and our relationship to and respect for the land.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

My Vision would best be described as an innovative approach to an aging problem. Our proposal is innovative in the sense that we are not asking for a handout. We are not a nation of people looking to simply have free food. We do not want a lifetime crutch that handicaps us through ignorance and want. Instead, we are seeking resources that give us the ability to care for our own through ways that have worked successfully for many generations among our people. We want the same as every other Indigenous community, the ability to eat culturally significant foods that nourish our mind, bodies and soul, and not just until 2050, but beyond 2050!

This entire project has been created around our traditional culture and who we are as a people. A culture that is slowly being lost to the hands of time and modern ways of life. Our Vision aims to stop this loss and revert the process so that we may regain vital pieces of who we are as a nation. The hydroponics greenhouse is the first step in growing food through technological advances. It is an alternative growing hub that feeds a growing population faster. While we lose some of the nutritional value by growing through such means, we open the gates of at least getting fresh produce in homes. A practice that will be mirrored by continuing to grow other culturally relevant foods through more traditional methods, such as raised gardening beds and on the farm once it is ready for use.

Through the successes of this program, we hope to find new ways to impact tribal policy. To find ways to overturn the bylaws and rules that limit who can be served and what geographical area people must live in to be serviced by the tribe. Collectively, we can use our position as the body of the tribe to make informed decisions for the betterment of the tribe as a whole and show that we are capable of taking care of one another when the tribal government is unable to do so.

The brunt of our Vision addresses our environment and diet. We want to change the environment in which we eat, grow, learn and convene through a food systems-based approach. We want tribal members to come out and pitch in throughout the process, to learn hands on and to help in the preparation and distribution of Harvest Boxes. We want to be in control of our diet through the foods we grow by choice and not the foods we buy out of necessity. Through all of this, we end with economics by creating and sustaining a system where we produce, distribute and consume foods relevant to our tribal sovereignty, traditional ways of doing and modern ways of knowing.

Using the data from the community needs assessment, qualitative interviews with tribal elders, conversations with tribal members, and data collected on and around Native American food systems, every step of this project has been created through the collective voices of tribal members. They have inspired this work, shared their thoughts, beliefs, and even grievances to get us where we are today. They decided it is time to make a change and I have used my platform as a tribal scholar in higher education to provide them with the tools and resources to change our way of life.

To date, the Narragansetts predominant problem is access to the land. While we have 1800 acres and the tribal farm, a majority of our land is swamp and on the remaining land, our soil quality is lacking vital nutrients necessary to grow crops. We currently lack the resources to create and implement a plan to regenerate the useable soil to be crop worthy. Using the hydroponics greenhouse and the tribal farm are the first steps to addressing this issue. Although it is worth noting that the tribal farm was once a junkyard and has been undergoing soil remediation and farming practices over the last three years. The farm temporarily stopped operation in the Spring of 2019 to allow for a power change in the day to day operations of the farm. The hydroponics greenhouse comes with the knowledge that we need to purchase supplies, cover utilities, and create a system that allows us to grow crops in an orderly fashion. Financially, the Harvest Box program cannot grow and will one day cease to exist if our only support comes from continuously seeking funding options. To get around this, we wish to become self-sustaining by finding endeavors that support projects that speak to long-term sustainability versus only addressing the here and now. The disconnect from the land keeps tribal members from pushing to implement new services that address their problems. All of these problems are relatively small in the larger scope of things, however, they are currently roadblocks keeping us from our having a sustainable food system.

In closing, we hope the Harvest Box program serves as an inspiration to other communities. To show them that it is not to late to make community changes that will impact the generations to come. We also aim to serve as a platform that empowers Indigenous communities to make powerful changes that impacts the well-being of their people in a positive way. Ideas similar to the Harvest Box program have popped up sporadically across the nation, and most fizzle out due to budget constraints. We want to create a program that serves to teach other communities how they can do the same. We look forward to the day when we can work with our sister tribes and other tribes across the United States and help them create a Harvest Box program for their people. While there are over 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, we are all unique in the foods we eat, the language we speak, the songs we sing, and the dances we dance. Each tribe would have to hone their box to include the foods traditional to their diet. Finally, this project would not be possible without the greater Narragansett Tribal community, whom we serve and from who we descend.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Alana Libow

Hi Summer Gonsalves - Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize!

Step into 2050 with a reporter by your side - What will this reporter observe and feel in Narragansett in 2050 because of your vision? What transformative developments will be underway that will have been nearly impossible to imagine today? Be careful that your vision isn't predictable progress tied to a "solution" - but rather is a bold aspiration that inspires a movement.

How might you showcase voices from those whom you have interviewed in your food system?

We look forward to seeing your updates by the Jan 31st deadline.