Bison and venison meatloaf?
New movement brings Native Americans back to food of their ancestors
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seasonal hunting, fishing, gathering and gardening have been replaced
by government-supplied commodity foods.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."
Scars of settlement
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
Alcoholism has also been a scourge among Indian peoples, though
it is historically likely that indigenous groups had fermented drinks,
"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."
A growing movement
The loss of culture and the rise in diet-related ailments have
created a movement across Indian Country for a better way. Reinhardts
project may be the most academically rigorous, but it is not alone.
He was inspired by Devon Mihesuahs American Indian Health
and Diet Project at University of Kansas.
Elsewhere, Winona LaDukes Native Harvest connects Indians
on Minnesotas 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
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 sense of self
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.
Its 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.
If we say
we are Pueblo people, native to this place,
what does that mean if we're living like the rest of America?
We need to reclaim the palates of our kids, Romero
said, noting that another aspect of the Pueblos 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
sculptor and permaculture
activist, took her tribes 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
Weve been living in America. We know better where
McDonalds is than we know where the wild rice grows,
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
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?
Recipe: Venison and bison
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 wasnt 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
The very people who really needed it and who wanted it,
couldnt 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
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 weve seen significant healthy weight loss,
Reinhardt said. But like Swentzell, he said there was a deeper understanding
of identity and self: We cant decolonize humans. Im
a mixed-ancestry person, and I can never be a decolonized person.
Plants and animals are forever changed by changes in the environment,
Yet the experiment has deepened his respect for his Ojibway
ancestors. He hunts game, gathers wild food. Its widened his
knowledge of diet and the environment. All because he asked a seemingly
I look back now and what was it that moved me? It really
was the ancestors speaking to me through that question. Im
glad I was able to heed the question. What a good blessing,