Lawmakers offer bill to protect Native products

By:  Scott Turner

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich has heard the stories about people passing off agriculture products as Native American made.

Now he, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and other lawmakers want to find out how widespread the activity is.

“I’ve been working on this issue for five years now,” Heinrich told the Journal. “Tesuque Pueblo was the first group to approach me about this. They have harvest seed that’s been around thousands of years. It’s only selectively bred in the Southwest.”

To protect the seed and other products, he, Luján and other members of Congress have introduced the Native American Seeds Protection Act of 2019 to identify ways to protect Native American seeds and traditional food products, and assist tribes in ensuring that cultural practices and traditional ways of life are preserved.

The legislation would direct the Government Accountability Office to study applicable trademark and intellectual property laws, the long-term viability of Native American seeds, and provide recommendations on how to ensure such seeds and traditional foods may be protected for future generations. This bill would also assess the impact of foods and seeds fraudulently marketed as traditional to or produced by Native Americans.

“After this is done, we’ll go from there,” Heinrich said, indicating more legislation could be coming to protect the products.

“I’ve also talked to members of the Navajo Nation about this,” the senator said. “Navajo squash is another product this would protect. Somebody could develop a hybrid squash and say it’s Native produced.”

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a release the nation had native seeds produced by Navajo farmers for use in traditional ceremonies and dishes.

Pueblo of Tesuque Gov. Milton Herrera said in a statement that the pueblo’s “seeds and traditional foods are foundations of our culture, and the study that this legislation authorizes will provide much-needed insight into how we can better protect them for future generations.”

He and Heinrich said the study could pave the way for economic opportunities in Indian Country.

“Protecting Native seeds and traditional food products will allow tribes to grow and create their own healthful food products and in turn spur economic development in Indian Country and provide new opportunities in the agriculture sector,” Heinrich said.

Luján said safeguarding Native American agricultural heritage “is a fight we cannot afford to lose.”

“For Tribal communities, protecting indigenous seed varieties is also a crucial exercise of tribes’ inherent sovereignty and the federal government’s trust responsibility,” he said in a release.