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Returning farmland to Yakama Nation is a step toward self-sufficiency tribes once had

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In recent years, land acknowledgements have become one way to address injustices against Native Americans, but acknowledgement is one thing. Justice is another. The Northwest News Network's Anna King has the story of an attempt to repair that relationship in central Washington.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: It's a race against winter to load heavy pallets of squash on the 1,500-acre Inaba Farm near Yakima. Four generations of this family have farmed here. Now Lon Inaba wants to retire and is selling the land, but not just to anyone. He's selling it to the Yakama Nation.

LON INABA: The tribal people have been really good to my family, and this is a way for us to return the favor.

KING: Inaba's grandfather came to the U.S. in 1907 after getting a degree in agriculture back in Japan. But as a person of Asian descent, he couldn't legally become a citizen or own land. The way he got around the law was to lease farmland on the Yakama reservation.

INABA: They were able to subsist.

KING: After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forcibly removed West Coast Japanese people and interned them in camps. The Inabas were sent to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Lon Inaba says his family grew food there, too.

INABA: The people in the communities complained that the Japanese who were in the camps were eating better than they were.

KING: After the war, the Inabas returned to central Washington. By 1954, laws had changed, and the Inabas could legally buy property within the Yakama Nation - good farmland that came with water rights. Now Lon Inaba is helping the Yakama Nation take over his family's land.

INABA: It takes trust on both parties.

KING: The tribes are celebrating this deal. Virgil Lewis is the vice chairman of the tribal council. He remembers his grandmother always being able to provide for the family.

VIRGIL LEWIS: She would can all kinds of fruits, all kinds of vegetables, and she would have a big, huge cellar to where all this food was stored.

KING: Lewis says farming the Inabas' land will help restore the self-sufficiency the tribes used to have in the era before westward expansion, then Safeway and McDonald's.

LEWIS: With the crops that are being grown here, our people can put that food away to supplement whatever food that they've put away from the mountains - the deer, the elk, the berries.

KING: For Lewis and for the Yakama Nation's Phil Rigdon, who will help oversee the farming venture, this farm means food sovereignty.

PHIL RIGDON: Our grandparents and our great-grandparents - they could never make it farming.

KING: He says that's because at the time, tribal people only grew lower-profit crops like alfalfa and corn silage on small farms.

RIGDON: And you see apples, cherries, hops - all these high-economic crops are surrounding us, and our goal is, how do we create it so that we could create an economy that we could have on part of that bounty, that we can gain the benefit? And I think this is the first step.

KING: The Yakamas' big vision is to eventually make this farm productive enough to sell produce to the neighboring tribes as well. Farmer Lon Inaba is proud of the way this whole land deal is working out.

INABA: We owe a lot to the tribal people, and this is the way to return it.

KING: The tribes have asked Inaba to stay on for a few years and teach the next generation of Yakama how to run the farm and reclaim sovereignty of their food supply.

For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Yakima, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.