Like many Alaska Natives, Spring Alaska Schreiner (Chugach Alaska Native Corporation / Valdez Native Tribe) grew up exercising her subsistence rights with her family—gathering berries, digging clams with her mom, catching and cleaning fish alongside her uncles. She recalls being surrounded by endless natural bounty throughout her childhood in Valdez, a waterfront city situated near the head of a deep fjord in Prince William Sound. When she moved to Oregon in 2006, she noticed a contrasting lack in access to culturally relevant foods, which has been a driving force behind her decades-long work championing Indigenous food sovereignty through agriculture, advocacy, and activism.
At her 6-acre Sakari Farms outside Bend, Oregon, Schreiner employs traditional ecological knowledge to cultivate regional first foods—foods consumed before European colonialization—and passes that expertise down to Native American youth.
“We have created a template for a tribal farm, which operates very differently than a standard non-Native farm.”
The operation started out with an urban nursery growing plants to makes salves, tinctures, oils, and lotions through Schreiner’s company, Sakari Botanicals. In 2018, the farm expanded and moved to the current high-desert property, which, in addition to growing crops such as peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, and herbs, also houses an Indigenous seed bank and a new community kitchen called Niqi Native Kitchen.
“I have always been the nerd with my head in the soil trying to learn more,” she explains. “Many tribes in Alaska are very intertribal, sharing similar foods and waterways. There’s not a lot of access up there with highways, and a lot of [traveling is] done by air and water, so we’re always sharing. That’s what food sovereignty is: becoming self-sufficient while also helping others secure food for themselves. I wanted to create that sense of community here in Oregon.”
She’s done just that, developing a hub for Native producers, chefs, and other folks to gather for education and inspiration. Today, Sakari offers hands-on farming and cooking classes, hosts long table dinners, and provides free tribal food boxes containing nutritious, culturally relevant ingredients to those in need—a pandemic initiative to help fight food insecurity among the local Indigenous community that has continued. The farm is not a nonprofit organization, so Schreiner depends largely on small one-off grants, crowdfunding, and limited wholesale revenue to finance Sakari’s many efforts—all of which center on traditional ecological knowledge.
“We have created a template for a tribal farm, which operates very differently than a standard non-Native farm,” explains Schreiner, who has a background in natural resource management, soil science, and water conservation. “We only grow things once [a year], because Native people have always used the whole plant, including the seed. We don’t want to trash the soil by turning crops all the time; we have volcanic ash here, which is like moondust, with little to no water. And we’re protecting these traditional Native plants that we grow for communities like the Hopi Nation and the Oneida Nation in the seed bank.”
Come autumn harvest after a short growing season of about 58 days, Sakari donates most of the yield to regional tribes with distribution assistance from state agencies. What remains is turned into teas, jams, sauces, and other shelf-stable products that are sold wholesale to Native-owned businesses and bear the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s Made by American Indians seal. “We’re growing this for our people,” Schreiner affirms. “I don’t want anyone eating out of commodity food centers anymore. We don’t just grow beans; we show you how to take care of the seed and plant, then use the beans to become self-sufficient—so that we’re not eating beans out of a can.”
That’s where the new 900-square-foot tribal commercial kitchen comes into play, akin to chef Sean Sherman’s incubator Indigenous Food Lab. Two years in the making, Niqi Native Kitchen serves as a culinary playground for area tribes, aspiring chefs, and Native youth to train, develop recipes, and participate in workshops. It’s also home base for Sakari-employed chefs like Pao Rodriguez, who cook up fare such as buffalo empanadas, huckleberry pie, and blue corn cookies to be sold at farmers’ markets.
“We’re teaching youth how to do it from start to finish,” says Schreiner. “They can learn how to grow and harvest traditional foods, make their own recipes in the incubator kitchen, and market and sell their products. The farm is a safe space for Natives to come together, honor Indigenous traditions, and learn how to be Native again after experiences like displacement, generational trauma, and other factors beyond our control.” To further lift up Native producers, she also recently launched the Pacific Northwest Tribal Agriculture Guide, a free online resource that encourages consumers to buy from Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Schreiner’s extensive advocacy work also often takes her off the farm to push for legislation supporting BIPOC growers and combatting climate challenges. For instance, her testimony was instrumental in the 2021 passing of Oregon’s $100-million drought relief package. This year, she has been involved in the state’s SB 530 natural climate solution bill (which was enacted in July as part of a larger climate-resilience package) and HB 2998 healthy soil bill (which did not pass).