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History and health came together one dark November evening for Marty Reinhardt at Northern Michigan University.
Reinhardt, a professor in the Native American Studies program, was helping to serve up fry bread, Indian tacos and other offerings at the annual First Nations Food Taster, a fund-raising event for the Native American Student Association, when he had an epiphany: “Would my ancestors even recognize this as food?”
Much has changed between Reinhardt and his ancestors. Indians have long since been removed to reservations, and diets based on seasonal hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening have been replaced by government-supplied commodity foods. Indians have suffered a crisis in diet-related obesity and health issues.
These disparate threads converged that evening in the Lake Superior port city of Marquette, Mich., as Reinhardt, of Anishinaabe Ojibway heritage, turned his question inside out, “I wondered if I could eat what my ancestors ate.”
The spark of curiosity soon evolved into a formal, university-sanctioned research study, the Decolonizing Diet Project — a year-long challenge to eat only foods that were in the Great Lakes region before 1602. The initial food challenge ended in March but the research into indigenous diet continues.
While there might be similarities to the so-called "Paleo diet" or the locavore movement, Reinhardt said decolonizing a diet is deeper and darker. Indigenous people making the quest to reconnect to their food traditions confront both a landscape that has changed and a culture that has changed.
The project was called decolonizing for a reason, Reinhardt said. "Once you've gone through that colonizing process, you can never truly be decolonized again. To me, it's like oppression. Once you've dealt with oppression, it's not like you can ever be non-oppressed. You will always have a scar, and the scar becomes part of your identity."
The scars of settlement on indigenous people and the American landscape have been profound — clear-cut forests, dammed rivers, plowed prairies, industrial pollutants. Reinhardt said the project involved research into whether native plants still existed, if fish and foraged foods were safe to eat. But he also offers perspective, “People are worried about eating indigenous foods but go ahead and have Twinkies and pizza? Crazy.”
Native Americans suffer disproportionate rates of diet-related ills, such as hypertension and diabetes and are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease, government statistics show.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are diagnosed with diabetes at rates more than twice as high as the general population — 16.1 to 7.1 percent, according to the Indian Health Service. Indigenous children between 10 and 19 have seen a 110 percent rise in adult-onset, or Type 2, diabetes in the last 20 years.
Alcoholism has also been a scourge among Indian peoples, though it is historically likely that indigenous groups had fermented drinks, Reinhardt said.
"We did not include alcohol as part of our diet, purposefully," he said. "One reason is the impact of alcohol in our communities."
Statistics show greater health threats from obesity and diabetes, he said. "Alcohol is a part of that, but I think the thing that is really killing us en masse is poor diet."
The loss of culture and the rise in diet-related ailments have created a movement across Indian Country for a better way. Reinhardt’s project may be the most academically rigorous, but it is not alone. He was inspired by Devon Mihesuah’s American Indian Health and Diet Project at University of Kansas.
Elsewhere, Winona LaDuke’s Native Harvest connects Indians on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation with the gathering of traditional foods such as wild rice, corn and maple syrup not only for consumption but also for sale internationally as premium, organic products. Profits from Native Harvest support the affiliated White Earth Land Recovery Project, which aims to reclaim the original land base and preserve original land practices.
Also, two pueblos in New Mexico are fostering indigenous food programs to not only save ancient seed varieties but also to get people to eat them. Ten tribes and urban Indian groups in North Carolina are combating obesity and diabetes by establishing gardens through the University of North Carolina’s Healthy, Native North Carolinians project.
The movement is growing at such a pace that the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit which helps with funding for a variety of initiatives among tribes, has noticed a distinct rise in agriculture-related grant requests, said Raymond Foxworth of the institute. Just last year, First Nations began awarding grants ($905,000 in 2012) for food-related proposals.
A-dae Romero is a co-founder of the Cochiti Youth Experience at the Cochiti Pueblo near Santa Fe. She and others were alarmed that kids were tuning into video games and sugary treats and tuning out centuries-old traditional agriculture.
Funding from First Nations has helped run a program that pairs children with elders in their families to continue the specific farming practices of the Pueblo.
“The strong tie to your land influences your political system and your religious system and your social system,” Romero said. “The idea was if we had kids reconnecting to traditional foods they would be reconnecting to all these other institutions that make our community.”
It’s been a struggle, Romero said. “We are battling against iPads and video games and computers and TV.”
The Cochiti are also battling modern taste sensations from ubiquitous processed foods engineered to be sweeter and saltier.
“We need to reclaim the palates of our kids,” Romero said, noting that another aspect of the Pueblo’s youth project has elders cooking traditional foods for lunch during summer language school. “Blue corn tortillas are popular, and we have different stews that combine squash and chiles.”
Not far away at Santa Clara Pueblo, Roxanne Swentzell, a renowned ceramic sculptor and permaculture activist, took her tribe’s seed collection and cultural preservation efforts to the next level. “There was always frustration to get people to try to live it. We were growing native crops enough to keep them from going extinct, but nobody was eating them.”
Swentzell said she was struck that even though her people evolved with specific foods for hundreds, even thousands, of years neither she nor the other research volunteers knew what, exactly, was traditional food.
“We’ve been living in America. We know better where McDonald’s is than we know where the wild rice grows,” she said.
She and 13 others researched and sourced traditional foods from the Pueblo — primarily heirloom corn, squash, beans and chiles — and ate them exclusively for three months earlier this year. Most of the volunteers made it through, Swentzell said, despite what she called “detoxing” from the lack of coffee, fats and sweets. The group experienced healthy weight loss, improved blood-sugar and cholesterol outcomes, documented in before-and-after medical checks.
And there was a bonus related to sense of self, sense of place.
“The physical aspect is cool, but there was something more,” she said. “It was a reconnecting with who we are. If we say we are Pueblo people, native people to this place, what does that mean if we are living just like the rest of America?”
Throughout their time together, the participants of the Decolonizing the Diet Program at the University of Northern Michigan compared notes on recipes. One of their favorites is this one for venison and bison meatloaf. Please note: You'll need to make some bison broth and gather sweet fern and leek salt, but Professor Mark Reinhardt, founder of the program, said it's worth the effort. Click here for the recipe.
The increased attention on indigenous eating is welcomed by Mihesuah at the University of Kansas, one of the early voices for a more indigenous diet. Nearly a decade ago she became alarmed at increasing diagnoses of diabetes among her own people, the Choctaw Nation, but wasn’t sure where to get help.
“I decided to write a book and have recipes,” she said. In 2005, University of Nebraska Press published her cookbook, Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens.
Mihesuah had envisioned a paperback that would be handy and affordable for Indians who wanted to recover traditional foods, but was surprised when the recipes were published as a coffee-table book.
“The very people who really needed it and who wanted it, couldn’t afford it,” Mihesuah said, so she secured the copyright, and, “I tore the book apart and put it up on the website, and it took off in all directions.”
Through her website and Facebook page, Indigenous Eating, Mihesuah highlights gardening tips, photos and recipes that she hopes will lead people to a healthier diet. Her efforts inspired Reinhardt to ask if she would be the outside adviser for the Decolonizing Diet Project.
Reinhardt said his epiphany at Northern Michigan evolved into a university-endorsed research project that included intensive consultation with national seed databases and international seed and plant experts to determine the makeup of a pre-contact landscape in the Great Lakes region. The USDA seed database and experts from as far away as the Netherlands and Germany were consulted to see what plants were present when, Reinhardt said, and has resulted in an extensive master food list to guide the DDP.
There were also before-and-after health checkups to get a medical baseline, and journaling by the 18 volunteer research subjects. Throughout their year-long challenge, participants shared recipes and tips at a group website.
Reinhardt said the DDP was not intended to be a grim survivalist experience with people eating dandelion leaves and berries. Varieties of squash — especially pumpkin — corn and beans were staples. Turkey was on the menu as were fish and duck eggs. Bison, which roamed the Upper Peninsula before European contact, was also a popular protein option, though expensive, Reinhardt said.
Many of these foods could be found in supermarkets. But the DDP participants also foraged for wild foods and had workshops on learning to garden and even to hunt. Reinhardt killed a deer for his larder, he said.
“Overall we’ve seen significant healthy weight loss,” Reinhardt said. But like Swentzell, he said there was a deeper understanding of identity and self: “We can’t decolonize humans. I’m a mixed-ancestry person, and I can never be a decolonized person. Plants and animals are forever changed by changes in the environment,” he said.
Yet the experiment has deepened his respect for his Ojibway ancestors. He hunts game, gathers wild food. It’s widened his knowledge of diet and the environment. All because he asked a seemingly simple question
“I look back now and what was it that moved me? It really was the ancestors speaking to me through that question. I’m glad I was able to heed the question. What a good blessing,” Reinhardt said.
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