Voices that Make a Difference: Ben Yahola

An interview with Ben Yahola – this interview is part of the original “Voices that Make a Difference” series written by Andrea King Collier for the Food Security Learning Center’s Race in the Food System topic.

Ben Yahola has a deep love of the land and its connection to First Nation people and their history. And in a time when he says that his people are facing major health crises such as near epidemic numbers of diabetes, and obesity, Yahola sees the land as a way of restoring their health and wellbeing. He works with the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative to enable the Muscogee people and their neighbors to provide for their food and health needs now and in the future. The initiative works through sustainable agriculture, economic development, community involvement, and cultural and educational programs.

“We started promoting gardening and land development as a way to get healthy food because there is an abundance of Mother Earth to use,” Yahola says. The land is something that he does not take for granted. “The Creek Indians who came from Alabama, Georgia and Florida were removed from their prime land under Andrew Jackson,” Yahola says. “Because of treaty violations the Creek Indians had to resettle in Oklahoma.”

Yahola says the land they found was not inhabitable. Adding insult to injury the United States declared the Creek’s government illegal. “It was racism and cultural chauvinism,” Yahola says. Many of the foods that were a part of their ceremonies and traditions such as the “Green Corn” ceremonial practice was being suppressed by the dominant society and many Muskogee’s chose the foreign spiritual alternative that gave them special privileges for accepting it. From the removal period, “Most of the food that was given to the Indians was from government rations,” he adds. Those moves, he says, tampered with 6,000 years of agriculture. “They displaced us and manipulated our consciousness.”
In an effort to do something to reclaim the health and culture of his people, Yahola began to propagate heirloom plants. “We have reached out to the Midwest to exchange seeds, and taken them to other places so that they can grow their own food, too,” he says. He says that that it is often difficult to nurture this concept of growing and eating off the land with younger generations. “Most of our people have to go into the cities to be closer to their jobs,” Yahola says. “It was all about surviving, but our health has suffered.”

The Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative took the lead in re-establishing farmer’s market for Okmulgee, Oklahoma in thirty years.  He says that funders who have never brought resources to minority groups are now beginning to support their efforts in revitalizing agricultural practice. “There have always been pockets of people who were thriving off the land through trade and barter,” he says. “Now, we are all caught up in capitalism.” He and his colleagues are working tirelessly to a real return to supporting economic growth through agriculture and the land.

“I once went to a space within the city limits in Milwaukee where we took an empty lot for a community garden,” Yahola says. The garden space was worked by people of various ethnicities, but Yahola says the sense of community was strong. “When you water your spot, you also go and water your neighbor’s,” he says.  Communal spaces like gardens help to develop a commonality, and a desire to work toward a resolution to issues and differences. “Gardens empower communities to have a place to gather and they give our youth a sense of ownership and pride,” he says. Another idea that has given Yahola a sense of pride has been some of the health programs for youth that include running and exercise. He hopes that the push for healthy food and physical activity will help to improve health outcomes among his people.

Some of the ideas Yahola has will take longer than others to catch on. “It will take a while to reeducate ourselves and to decolonize our minds,” Yahola says. “It will also take a caring human mentality.” 

While the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative has been proactive, he acknowledges that not all tribes deal with the boundaries created by the federal government in the same way. “Some accept the situation, and some look outside of the box,” he says. “Sometimes people struggle to find their own source of power.”

“When we get out and meet other groups,” Yahola says, “we talk about the importance of protecting our cultural resources.”  The work to connect people to the land has not been easy. “We are often working against the big institutions, and we also understand more about using what is provided wild and free,” Yahola says. “It’s all about our spiritual connection to the earth.

Our thanks to Andrea King Collier for writing and sharing these powerful stories. For more information about Andrea’s work, visit www.andreacollier.com.