Food, Earth’s medicine, nurtures and heals. A growing movement in Indian Country recognizes that the future of Native cultures depends upon healthy people learning and practicing food traditions. Native people have co-evolved for thousands of years, cultivating and gathering foods and observing which nourished a thriving body and which had healing properties. As Pueblo scholar Greg Cajete points out, Native science understands this through observing connections.
The high rates of obesity and diabetes present in contemporary Native American communities are best understood in historical context. Colonialism imposed a food system not suited to Native people. Loss of much of the tribal land base necessary for traditional gathering and hunting, plus reliance on government commodity food-distribution programs—based on refined, milled foods, dairy products and trans-fats—exacerbated health problems for a genetic body type that is lactose-intolerant and not suited to high gluten.
The result is a modern epidemic. American Indian/Alaskan Natives have a 2.7-times higher incidence of diabetes than whites (CDC).Adults are 60 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites.More than 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight.
Values and Spiritual Connections
Culturally based solutions, coming internally from tribal communities, are sparking an exciting, flourishing movement that seeks to turn these conditions around. The spiritual nature of foods is the basis of the cultural connection to self-care. Respect for the body is reflected in viewing food as a lifeway and medicine. This worldview recognizes that food heals the body as an everyday process. This is an integrated approach to food that respects one’s place in the ecosystem, through social clans representing plants and animals, and reflects balance in the ecosystem. Traditional Native American languages express relationships to plants and animals. Stories and legends convey food-related knowledge, roles, responsibilities and relationships. The continual exchange of food and food knowledge through kinship forms a traditional food system. Native practices, such as maintaining healthy landscapes, and ecosystem-specific agriculture, such as gathering and “tending” wild plants, and deer and elk management, are intricately tied to culture. In the Native view, nurturing healthy, interdependent relationships with the land, plants and animals that provide food is a sacred responsibility.
Values are also central to behavior surrounding food. Sacrificing good quality food in favor of expensive, processed foods and consumerism is a contemporary behavioral pattern in the United States, detrimental to maintaining good health, connections to family and to land. In the Native view, not taking care of one’s body and relying on allopathic medicine to repair the damage of degenerative illnesses from lack of self-care reflects a disconnect.
Value awareness carries a community into building culturally based food systems:
Generosity creates family and community connection; Family connections are strengthened by preparing and growing food together; Cooperation, a strong value in traditional New Mexico cultures, takes us from the convenience store to sharing food together, rather than in isolation in front of the television; and Community, where tribal communities are pulling together to create community farms and gardens and family gardens and co-ops to provide a nutritious and safe local food supply based upon traditional practices.
Native food sovereignty is a local response, addressing local history and high rates of degenerative diseases as a means of self-determination. Today, tribes are making great progress toward gaining control of their own food sources by seed saving and growing food. Generously sharing knowledge with non-Indian neighbors is a part of this evolution. The Native Food Sovereignty movement is a contemporary response based on the spiritual understanding of food as a gift and the sovereign right of tribes and tribal members to make decisions regarding a healthy, culturally based diet.
According to the Indigenous Food Systems Network, food sovereignty, or independence through taking back control of diets and health, can be achieved only if individuals, families and communities are actively participating in indigenous food-related events and activities. The Pueblo Food Experience, led by sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), is an example of a project highly successful in supporting tribal members making the shift to a healthy, “pre-contact diet.”
The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance recognizes restoring Native food systems as an immediate and fundamental need for the continued survival and physical and spiritual well-being of Native peoples and our Mother Earth. NAFSA is dedicated to restoring the indigenous food systems that support indigenous self-determination, wellness, cultures, values, communities, economies, languages and families, and those that rebuild relationships with the land, water, plants and animals that sustain a people.
With financial support to tribes from First Nations Development Institute, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Indian Health Service, the Administration for Native Americans and foundations, the restoration of Native food traditions is taking place. The formation of tribal farm enterprises, farmers’ markets and seed banks to preserve indigenous varieties and traditional knowledge is furthering a local, fresh food supply.
How You Can Participate
Opportunities exist in New Mexico for purchasing tribally grown nutritious varieties, interacting with tribal farmers and learning about growing and culinary practices. A couple of examples: Red Willow Farmers’ Market at Taos Pueblo offers agricultural produce, as well as bison and beef from tribal herds (Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 885 Star Road); and Pojoaque Pueblo Farmers’ Market (Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., in front of the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, off Highway 84/285, about 15 minutes north of Santa Fe).
Susan Guyette, Ph.D., is of Métis heritage (Micmac Indian/Acadian French). She is a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions and Planning for Balanced Development and co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature. email@example.com