As momentum behind adopting regenerative approaches to farming in the United States gains traction, Forum for the Future speaks with Indigenous agriculturist and Inupiaq leader Spring Alaska Schreiner on her experience, perspectives and rich heritage. Founder of and farmer on Sakari Farms in Tumalo, just West of Bend in the heart of Central Oregon, Spring reflects on her use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to take care of the land she and so many depend on for their livelihoods and nutrition. She shares just some of the Indigenous place-based practices in use at Sakari; practices that have been utilized for hundreds of years and from which a food system in rapid transition must now learn. Spring also reflects on the depth of Indigenous knowledge, the deep-rooted changes needed in the US, and how we must build stronger intertribal collaborations.

Here, Spring meets Forum’s Sustainability Strategist, Michelle Stearn in one of three case studies making up the Frontline of Indigenous Agriculture series. As part of Forum’s Growing our Future program, the series aims to put the spotlight on the insights and perspectives of Indigenous agriculturalists working at the forefront of regenerative principles.

Spring Alaska Schreiner tending to the sweetgrass plot on Sakari Farms

Spring Alaska Schreiner tending to the sweetgrass plot on Sakari Farms.

Spring Alaska Schreiner, an Indigenous Agriculturalist and leader, has woven her own tribal knowledge from her Native Inupiaq roots into her endeavor, Sakari Farms, as a hub for intertribal collaboration and food sovereignty. Located in Tumalo, just West of Bend in the heart of Central Oregon, Sakari Farms offers agricultural education to local tribal communities and Native youth organizations, and specializes in seed-keeping. Currently, the farm grows specialty tribal peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, ceremonial crops, herbs and native flowers. With her team, Spring Alaska hosts intertribal culinary and healing workshops, offering value-added products made from the crops and medicines grown on the farm.

Since colonization began in the 16th century, Native foodways have been restricted and erased – from the mass slaughter of the Buffalo and restrictions on the hunting and gathering rights of tribes, to the destruction of habitats and forced removal. With Sakari, Spring offers a solution to combat centuries of exclusion, address climate change, and overcome the current lack of cultural education on tribal knowledge. “There was no tribal food around here for me to access,” Spring tells Forum. “There was no tribal seed. I didn’t see a lot of my tribal people around me. So I was wanting to create that or fill the demand for that.”

Native land caregivers and educational hubs for tribal knowledge and ways - such as Sakari Farms - offer important means for Native communities to pass on wisdom on kinship with the land, and to help current Indigenous generations to address historical generational trauma. 

As they work the land, the Sakari team reconnects with the linkages that were severed when elders were separated from their families and communities, taken to boarding schools and forced to assimilate into Western culture. Spring invites Native peoples from all tribes to learn on the land, and break the cycle of poverty and systemic oppression within reservations and urban Native communities, especially the ones related to food – American Indians and Alaska Natives are almost three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic white population in the U.S., and according to the US Department of Agriculture, Native households with children were more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity than their non-Native counterparts. “There’s cycles that aren’t being broken because there’s a lack of connection with our food and culture,” says Spring. “It’s heavy… but what we’re lacking is having access to other Natives to talk about things.”

On the depth of Indigenous knowledge: tying advanced ecosystem management practices to kinship with the land

Spring considers Native farmers as “scientists, meteorologists; we work with the sky and the stars, we work with climate change”. As they are in tune with the land and know what to plant based on conditions, such as climate-change induced drought, regenerative practices are resilient by design, and adaptive by principle. Spring reflects on the fact that all regenerative practices have to start with learning “how to take care of the land so it tells you what it needs.” 

Native farmers are able to “look at a landscape or an area on the farm where it might be sick or not feeling well, or it's thriving, and how to amend its requests,” she says. “It's just what we know. I can look at any plant and know when it's going to go to seed or if the seed's ready.” 

Spring Alaska works on the controlled burn of the land to stimulate growth of native flora. Periodic controlled burning is a traditional land stewardship technique key for new growth and soil health. Here, Spring aerates a burn site, sharing how her staff each bring their unique but intertwined traditional wisdom to the farm.

Spring and her team use regenerative practices which are rooted in Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), such as controlled burning to stimulate growth of native flora and restore the ecosystems from root to seed. Burning is a traditional land caregiving technique key for new growth and soil health.

As Spring explains, burning helps to “replenish the native population, our native foods and plants, which is pollinator and wildlife habitat. It restores the nutrients in the soil.” 

Taking the example of sweetgrass – which is grown at Sakari and typically used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes – burning “triggers that historical genetic seed stock that's afoot underground that's been there for 10, 15 years.“

But beyond restoring the soil, burning also “restores our kinship to the land. So we're letting it know that there's something wrong and we'll go burn it and take care of it. We're taking time to honor the land. And then [the land] is letting us know it liked it. It's going to give us a healthier yield. It's going to help us with climate change issues.”

On shifting the foundations of the current agricultural system in the US

The current agricultural system in the US devastates the soil, biodiversity, and ecosystems upon which it relies, all to produce decreasingly nutritious food. Increasingly, regenerative agriculture solutions have taken the hot seat as a solution for restoring ecosystem health. 

Hidden beneath these new narratives are the foundations of regenerative principles, which are based upon Indigenous place-based practices that have been utilized for hundreds of generations. 

But can the regenerative agriculture movement as it exists now truly address the root causes of ecosystem degradation, if it continues to perpetuate the exploitation of people and Native ideas? 

Our current system incentivizes extraction and consumption, with business models underpinned by profit and yield maximization. Although there is movement in the agriculture space to acknowledge Indigenous roots of regenerative agriculture, farms and corporations will need to ensure that their efforts are more than just a photo-op. Spring shares that while conventional ranchers, for example, may be eager to learn practices from Native consultants about raising cattle regeneratively, she laments the exploitation that underlies some of those knowledge exchanges. 

“They’ll come out to you and take [their] picture with the Native,” Spring remarks, and effectively “tokenize that moment.” So while the rancher may adopt new practices for their cattle grazing that benefit the soil, to Spring, the exchange is ultimately devoid of reciprocity, because the rancher monetizes the Native practice to feed a system of consumption. “And a lot of them are doing that good work,” Spring admits, sharing how important the practices are to healing our ecosystems. “But they're really using that term [regenerative] to profit. And then the original [gangster; “OG”] Natives that are doing the farming, we're still just broke.”

On the deeper shifts needed

Spring advocates for a deeper shift; not only in the practices farmers and companies implement to grow food, but also in the interactions with the Indigenous experts whose practices they are adopting as they transition to regenerative. A more profound collaboration with Native place-based practitioners and agronomists is needed for the current system to begin to shift its goals. 

If the movement towards regenerative agriculture gets large-scale monocrop operations to stop "dumping chemicals," Spring shares, then that's a step in the right direction. But it's not enough to just implement the practices. That’s why Spring says farmers interested in Indigenous farming methods should take the necessary step of compensating Native farmers and agronomists for sharing their ancestral wisdom, in an effort to bolster their ability to adapt to present conditions and navigate a system that continues to disenfranchize and underserve Indigenous communities. “We shouldn't have to go do all this dirty work to get people to farm better. We're busy enough trying to feed our people that have no food still,” she says. 

So how can non-Native farmers utilize regenerative practices in ways that not only honor and acknowledge Indigenous originators, but enable them to thrive?

Spring Alaska compares sweetgrass seeds with the dried mature grass, talking about the importance of preserving seeds each year as a key tenet of Indigenous food sovereignty.

On cultivating understanding and connection: opportunities for acknowledgment and cross-cultural healing

The primary issue for Spring is “that non-Natives are defining regenerative agriculture.” That’s not to say that regenerative practices shouldn’t be used – quite the contrary. As a former teacher through USDA programming and the local conservation district, and as the founder of a small regenerative farm, Spring knows the perseverance it takes to start something from the ground up. “So I have to say that I'm proud of all the people who are implementing those practices,” she says. “I want to honor everyone who's using those practices.”

For example, Spring deeply respects some of the work of neighboring biodynamic farms in the Tumalo area, which are utilizing the hallmark soil conservation practices that have become common in the regenerative movement, such as cover cropping, no-till, and minimal use of all-organic fertilizer. 

To Spring, these practices deem the farm “biodynamic,” but to use the term “regenerative” they would need to stop co-opting Native terminology without permission. One such phrase, “time immemorial,” strikes a chord when Spring hears white farmers using it to describe their farming practices. In Indian Country, the phrase proliferated as a direct challenge to Western scientists who sought to delegitimize Native American rights to the land as the original occupants. Indigenous agriculturalists have been implementing regenerative practices as part of a way of life since time immemorial.

According to Spring, non-Native farmers “need to start asking the tribes what we need and what they should be doing instead of it being the reverse, where we're always the last to be spoken to… when we're the keepers of the land.” 

Spring recommends that farmers and companies tapping into Indigenous wisdom (or their assumptions of what that wisdom holds) should compensate Native farmers or tribal authorities in their regions for their time and energy – whether it’s for coaching on physical practices on how to be in kinship with the land, or for the unpaid labor that Indigenous farmers (and BIPOC farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers in general) have to take on to bring people to a baseline understanding of the systemic oppression that plagues the agriculture system in this country. 

The Intertribal Agriculture Council's (IAC) American Indian Foods Program increases market access opportunities for producers like Spring, offering an elevated platform to highlight present day American Indian contributions to a safe, local food system. Sakari Farms has participated in IAC programming for several years now, and certifies their goods under IAC’s “Made and Produced by American Indians'' trademark, and has pledged to the IAC's Rege[N]ation seal. IAC Natural Resource Director, Emily Luscombe, shares that, "No matter what stewardship methods you choose or where you choose to do them, you are occupying Native land." While the term “regenerative” is not going away, Emily insists that non-Native farmers “need to [use] it the right way with the right acknowledgements,” she implores, and suggests: "Educate yourself on what tribes historically stewarded the land you now occupy, and commit to building a relationship with them that is informed by their own cultural values."

Building those connections could be the impetus for cross-cultural understanding and healing around the fundamental need that connects us all – the need to nourish ourselves, and to protect the planet that provides that nourishment.

It’s these shared understandings that bring all of Spring’s partners and specialists together on the land at Sakari. With a diverse staff of Indigenous agriculturalists whose tribal affiliations range from Inupiaq (Spring’s lineage) to Paiute to Yurok (tribal roots of Sakari’s diverse staff), the diversity brings strength to the organization; while many of the staff share practices such as burning, gathering, and preserving, their unique perspectives add depth to the wisdom of their caregiving role with the land. “We're growing and opening up to each other and others,” Spring shares. “So the farm is a place to bring people; a safe place to learn about food and learn about our culture.”

Spring Alaska outside one the farm’s four greenhouses. New additions to the plot, the greenhouses allow her to extend the growing season. They were critical and momentous investments for the small but mighty growing operation.

About Spring

Spring Alaska Schreiner (or Upingaksraq, “The time when the ice breaks”) is the owner and Principal Ecologist / Indigenous Agriculturalist of Sakari Farms and the Pacific Northwest Tribal seedbank. She is an enrolled member and shareholder of the Chugach Alaska Native Corporation and Valdez Native Tribe. Spring serves on multiple regional and national agricultural boards and educational committees and advocates for local farmers and tribal members. She received the 2019 NASDA Women Farm to Food Award and more recently, the 2022 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award for Northwest region, the 2021 Na’ahlee Tribal Fellowship. She participates in the Indian Agricultural Council, Made by Native American Export Food Program, Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, American Indian Housing Authority, Pacific Northwest Intertribal Food Sovereignty Coalition, and many other regional policy based boards and committees.

Spring’s story is one of three stories as part of our spotlight on regenerative agriculture in the United States. The Frontline of Indigenous Agriculture series aims to tell the stories of those on the frontline of regenerative principles and to explore what can - and must - be learned from Indigenous voices as the food transition gathers space.

Find out more with Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a 253rd-generation farmer, and Katy and Jerry Jondreau of Dynamite Hill Farms. 

The Frontline of Indigenous Agriculture series is part of Forum’s Growing our Future program.