GLACIER PARK, Mont. - Blackfeet tribal member Marietta King watched
her mother and father die after being debilitated by poor health.
That's when she vowed to make lifestyle changes and help others
do the same.
my parents passed away I began to look at my own health," she said.
"I realized I was going right down the same path."
of becoming another tragic statistic, King, now 50, embarked on
a journey to learn all she could about healthy living, especially
through diet. The journey became a trek through the largely unwritten
history of traditional American Indian foods and the well-documented
onslaught of afflictions that continue to devastate Native peoples
outcome of King's quest for knowledge was multilayered. On the personal
side, she dropped unwanted pounds and gained a new physical vibrancy
by altering her diet and getting more exercise. Her many months
of research also led to the writing of "Native American: Food is
Medicine," a fact-packed, 160-page book that explores the prevention
and control of diabetes and hyperinsulinemia, and the "Renewal of
Life: Food Journal," that helps users track their daily intake of
carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
books were released last year by McCleery & Sons Publishing
based in Gwinner, N.D. Their discount price of $8.95 and $7.95,
respectively, was designed to make them more affordable to low-income
people, she said. She's also working on another volume that's geared
more to the general population.
know diabetes is not prejudiced regarding race," she said. "It goes
King's parents were never diagnosed with either Type 1 or Type 2
diabetes, she said they suffered a variety of ailments - high blood
pressure, liver and kidney problems, high cholesterol, severe anemia
and heart maladies - that nonetheless are closely linked to poor
nutrition and insulin instability. The list, she noted, is all-too-common
in Indian country, where Natives are afflicted by these and other
diseases at rates far higher than non-Indians.
like many others, believes that modern-day foods, especially those
that are highly processed, are plugging up and filling out Indian
people. But she also realizes that it's often impractical to give
up all the goodies. That's why her "Food is Medicine" book includes
an extensive catalog of recipes that combine the old with the new.
The publication also reveals ways to prepare a wide variety of common
and uncommon foods with less harmful fats and sweeteners.
"Native Foods" section, for example, has directions for things like
Saskatoon berry soup and baked tripe, the muscular lining of an
animal's stomach. Boiled tongue, either buffalo or beef, is also
on the menu, as well as blue camas, made from a type of Western
and other natural plant and animal foods are juxtaposed with more
typical dishes, such as ribs, hamburger and chicken, mainstays on
most American tables. The main difference is that the entries are
aimed at resembling a pre-contact diet, especially for Northern
Plains tribes. In many recipes, for instance, wild game can be substituted
for beef or domesticated bird.
primary premise forwarded by King is that because Native bodies
generally haven't evolved far from that of the traditional hunter-gatherer,
the old food "pyramid" touted for years by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture needs to be inverted.
who has constructed an alternative "pyramid lodge" of desired foods,
said proteins are the broad-based foundation of a healthy diet,
followed by fresh vegetables and berries, unsaturated fat found
in certain oils, seeds and nuts, herbs, and dairy products. Grains
and sweets are at the top of the lodge, meaning they should be consumed
the least and in the smallest quantities.
wants to give up fry bread," she said. "But there are ways to prepare
it so it's not so harmful to us."
maintains that because good nutrition is so closely tied to health,
wholesome and properly prepared food is a key component to happiness
and overall well-being. She explains that in the pyramid lodge,
the Creator secures the four poles symbolizing the physical, emotional,
spiritual and mental staples of a healthy life.
four poles may also symbolize the stages of life: birth, youth,
adult and old age; and to the four seasons, spring, summer, fall
and winter, or the four races, white, yellow, black and red," she
wrote. "The Creator is the common thread that holds everything together
now know that the typical food pyramid is resulting in the fattening
of America," the slender King said from her modest home, which also
doubles as an office and studio for completing her distinctive artwork.
"The life force of the plant we eat or the animal we eat becomes
part of us. If we're eating out of the can, there's no life in that.
with knowledge, changing behavior means altering a mindset. King,
who holds an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice, a master's
degree in Counseling and Psychology and formerly served as the academic
dean at Blackfeet Community College, is acutely aware that breaking
old habits is tough work.
times are changing, she said. The federal government is rethinking
its outdated food pyramid, and commodity programs now include buffalo
and fresh fruits and vegetables - if your community has the proper
refrigeration in its storage areas. She also noted that the main
grocery store in Browning, the Blackfeet Reservation's capital,
has been willing to stock a variety of different, more-healthful
items. The same can be true elsewhere if customers prove that's
what they want.
access to those types of food on most reservations is a big issue,"
King explained. "If you're in poverty, you often have to eat macaroni
and cheese. And that's killing us. But we can focus on the problems
if we want, but that's not going to change the problems. When we
focus on moving forward, when we look at the things in our community
that are working, then we can move ahead."
also doesn't blame modern Indian families for the food dilemmas
they're facing. Many of their unhealthy eating habits were introduced
in the boarding school system and other foreign places Native peoples
were forced to go.
learned to drink milk and eat sandwiches and frozen food, things
like that," she said. "But when we take time to make our food in
a loving and caring way, that gets passed on to our food. Compare
that to going to McDonald's or any other restaurant. Then we usually
don't know who made the food or where it came from. Fortunately,
there's a new awareness going through Indian country about health.
I see nothing but going forward for that."