Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are among the worst health disparities suffered by American Indians and Alaska Natives. These conditions stem from the kinds of food many Native people eat. Too often, that means fast food, canned food, and other processed foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. The result is poor health.
To fight disparities in food and health, more and more community leaders are approaching the problem at the most basic level. As they recognize, the same foods that Native people ate before European colonization are the foods they should be eating right now: indigenous foods, rooted in the lands where Native people traditionally lived. The more Native people can take control of their food supply and eat foods that are indigenous and culturally congruent, the healthier Native communities will be.
One of the pioneers in the indigenous food movement is Dr. Devon Mihesuah, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Professor of Humanities and Western Civilization at the University of Kansas. She founded the American Indian Health and Diet Project, which maintains a Website with plenty of recipes and information on food and exercise, as well as a blog, Yakni Achukma – The Good Land, which chronicles seasonal plants and wildlife in the Great Plains.
Turkey pepper pot by Devon Mihesuah
Among the many people inspired by Dr. Mihesuah’s work is Dr. Martin Reinhardt, Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University and founder of the Decolonizing Diet Project. Dr. Reinhardt is an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians from Michigan. His idea was to assemble a group of volunteers who agreed to devote some percentage of their total food intake (25% to 100%) for a full year to foods available in the Great Lakes region before 1600 AD. He put together lists of indigenous foods along with recipes and menus to help participants design their diets. Many participants had to forage in the wild for the foods they needed.
Reinhardt himself committed to a 100% indigenous diet, but even he had to overcome significant challenges to find appropriate food. As he recounted in an interview in 2012, his mainstay was wild rice, supplemented by starches such as squashes and sweet potatoes, vegetables such as wild leeks, dandelions, cattails, and sunchokes, and meats such as venison, bison, and turkey. Duck eggs and fish were also key items on the menu. Special treats included maple-flavored pecans, crabapple blueberry sauce, and white pine tea.
Acorn squash – click here for recipe
The implementation phase of the Decolonizing Diet Project lasted one year, from March 2012 to March 2013. Now project data are being analyzed and reports are being prepared for wide dissemination. Meanwhile, Dr. Mihesuah continues to sponsor an annual Week of Indigenous Eating in honor of the work done by Dr. Reinhardt’s project, most recently from November 3to November 9. For one week, participants are encouraged to limit their diet to foods native to the Western hemisphere.
Choctaw stew – click here for recipe
Many other people are working actively to bring back traditional foods and encourage healthy lives the indigenous way. Among them are Winona LaDuke, the Green Party candidate for Vice President in 1996 and 2000. As an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg, she is the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, which published Sustainable Tribal Economies.
Another recent effort is the Zaagkii Project, which is a collaboration by the Cedar Tree Institute, the US Forest Service, the Center for Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University, and Marquette County’s Juvenile Court. Its goal is to restore indigenous plants and insects to northern Michigan. Scott Herron, Professor of Biology at Ferris State University, is the consulting ethnobotanist for this project.
Another is the Traditional Native American Farming Association, which is based in indigenous communities in New Mexico. This group is a leading voice for food sovereignty among Native Americans. It encourages tribal communities to work the land with organic and traditional methods.
Here at Partnerships for Native Health, we support and participate in the indigenous foods movement with a blog, Traditional Food Tuesdays, which features a new recipe in every installment. Many recipes originate in the work of Devon Mihesuah.
The movement to reclaim indigenous foods and create a traditional diet for the twenty-first century is one of the most exciting and hopeful developments of the last ten years. When asked how he was inspired to launch the Decolonizing Diet Project, Dr. Reinhardt replied,
It really was the ancestors speaking to me [….] What a good blessing!