Indigenous food today
Restoring Our Future by Reclaiming Our Past
And so here we are, 150+ years after the ancient, healthy diet of American Indian people was so forcefully and drastically altered, causing a litany of health problems leading to the lowest life expectancy in the U.S. (statistics on Lakota life expectancy: 48 for males, 52 for females). And yet, as I said at the end of my last blog, that is not the end of the story! We are still here. We have survived. And now there is a new focus and purpose spreading across Indian country. Indigenous Nations across North America are rising up and reclaiming their culture, their traditions, their rights and their sovereignty. With this reawakening, Native people are beginning to also reclaim their food heritage.
In Lakota country, there is an organization called the Lakota Lands Recovery Project, which is working to restore tribal lands to the Lakota families they were allotted to. As part of this effort, the project is also focused on educating our communities about how to locate their lands and identify the options and procedures for recovering, protecting, utilizing and managing those lands. Another great facet to the Lakota Lands Recovery Project is that they are supporting the restoration of the traditional ecology, economy and culture surrounding the buffalo. Nothing could be more important to Lakota people than the reestablishment of our deep connection to tatanka. An example of that vision for the future of our Lakota diet is Tanka Bar, a company located on the Pine Ridge reservation. Tanka Bar applies the ancient Lakota traditional food customs of combining buffalo meat with fruit, while making their products marketable and easily consumable for today’s world.
Another great example of American Indian people reclaiming their food heritage is the local food system being built and implemented by the Sac and Fox tribe of the Mississippi/Meskwaki Nation. Through its ‘Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative’, they have developed an organic farm called ‘Red Earth Gardens’, a 40 acre farm consisting of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and cover crops, as well as a 1.5 acre community garden, cooperative incubator space, and hay and conservation habitat. The Initiative aims to restore the tribal community connection to Mother Earth and their rich, organic, healthy indigenous food heritage.
A school garden, tended by the students, provides produce for the school cafeteria salad bar. Not surprisingly, the students love the salad bar! The yield from Red Earth Gardens is sold through Tribal Supported Agriculture shares, a farm stand at the Meskwaki Trading Post, the Toledo Farmers Market, the casino, grocery stores and restaurants, thus providing economic resources for the Meskwaki Nation.
Stories like these are the buzz of the times across Indian country. Everywhere, American Indian communities are reclaiming their right to eat the way their ancestors knew so well. It is way of wisdom…. a way of acquiring, respecting and honoring our food, so that we may be the strong and healthy people we once were. A new day is dawning for the Indigenous Nations of North America; a new era of sovereignty, self determination and self reliance. Our cultures were devastated in every way imaginable. And yet, we remain. And so we reclaim all that makes us who we are, including how we eat. Thus the Indigenous food of our future is tied to the Indigenous food of our past. Together they make a sacred bundle, reconnecting us to our history with a vision for our future.
From bounty to leftovers
The 'Whites' Invade the Indigenous Diet
It is not my intention to be a ‘Debbie Downer’ here! However, I feel it is important to know that these drastic changes to the American Indian diet were the direct result of military force and were a conscious decision by the U.S. government at that time.
Before European contact it is estimated that there were some 30 to 60 million buffalo roaming North America. With the outright intention of literally starving Plains Indian people into submission, the U.S. government made a conscious decision to call ‘open season’ on all buffalo anywhere at any time by anyone. Colonel Richard Dodge said in 1867, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” And so they shot them…. from moving trains, killed them en masse for only their hides and tongues, and brought the American Bison to the brink of extinction in just 40 years, from 60 million down to just 600. The same was done in the southwest during 1863 – 1864, a period in which tens of thousands of sheep were slaughtered by the U.S. Calvary, thus crippling the Dine’ (din-AY – ‘Navajo’) people. Another example is the Ponca People being forcibly removed from their homeland on the Niobrara, where they had long been farmers and agriculturalists. And the Pacific Coastal Peoples being taken away from their ancient fishing traditions and pushed onto reservations. The examples and tragic stories are, of course, endless.
And so the reservation period began, and with it came ‘the whites’. What ‘whites’ am I referring to? Why of course – flour, sugar, salt and milk! Yes, for the first time in the ancient history of American Indian people, whole milk and these forms of flour, sugar and salt were introduced to the indigenous diet in large doses. Even by today’s standards we know that too much of any of these ingredients in any diet can be detrimental to our health. But being that the diets of Native American people had never included milk, and such high concentrations of white flour, sugar and salt, the effects on the overall health of Indian people were, and still are, devastating. The introduction of fatty meats like pork and even beef also had adverse effects on the indigenous diet. Not to mention the fact that food rations from the U.S. to Indian reservations were often spoiled, rotten or short in supply.
The long term result for American Indian cultures across the country was, and still is, near epidemic problems with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, terrible dental problems and countless other diet related health issues. And so it is that, by force, the indigenous diet went from being a robust, healthy, organic, local foods driven way of eating, to a destructively unhealthy diet of flour, sugar, salt and cheap, overly processed foods. Before the introduction of these items, it is noted by historians of the times that Native people were strong, lean and healthy, with good teeth and were in great physical condition. The adverse results of the forced change to the indigenous diet not only affected the physical health of Indian people, but their mental state of mind, and their socioeconomic well being. But that is not where the story ends. Stay tuned for my next blog for some great news on what is happening now throughout Indian country!
Did you know that over 62% of the food that people around the world enjoy today was originally introduced by the indigenous people of the Americas? That’s right; everything from tomatoes to pecans to popcorn to potato chips was given to the rest of the world by the Native people of North and South America. So where did all this agriculture begin?
Let me take you back….
In ancient times, tens of thousands of years ago, the indigenous people of these lands acquired their food by picking the fruits of nature’s yield where they could be found, fishing, or hunting for small or large game. And yet, Native people were way ahead of the curve when it came to developing agriculture, and the preservation and domestication of food. For example, American Indian people invented raised bed gardening over 4,000 years ago, irrigation techniques over 10,000 years ago, and terraced farming over 3,700 years ago.
Here I’d like to share a couple personal stories of American Indian food customs that date back thousands of years….
My good friend, the late E. Donald Two Rivers, once told me of a wild rice gathering tradition among his people, the Ojibwe (Chippewa). They go out into the marshes in a canoe that has had its inner floor thoroughly cleaned. They bring two sticks with them. With one stick, they gently bend the wild rice shoot toward the boat. With the other stick, they strike the shoot. Any wild rice pods that are ripe will fall into the bottom of the boat, and any that are not, stay on the shoot to keep growing. They do this all day long, and at the end of the day, the bottom of the boat is full with wild rice!
In my culture (Lakota), we have a traditional food called wasna (wash-nah), which is a blend of dried tatanka (bison) meat and fruit. Wasna was used as sustenance by our ancestors when they were on travels, hunts or journeys which took them away from the community for any length of time. It was packed with energy giving nutrients, and was a staple for our people for countless centuries. We still eat wasna today. It was given to all of us on several occasions during the Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride. I consider wasna a ‘big medicine’ food, because it gives your body and your spirit strength and energy.
So we have been at this food making, developing, cultivating and innovating for tens of thousands of years. Food related health problems like heart disease or diabetes among our people were unheard of. We were a strong, healthy, and robust people with a closeness to the earth, and therefore, to our food. We respected it, honored it, and valued it greatly. Our American Indian ancestors viewed their food with reverence, and treated it as such, understanding that if what you eat is healthy and strong, you will be too….
New Year's resolutions.... People make them - and break them - every year. For the most part, they are not taken too seriously. Having said that, I want to offer another perspective on what all this 'resolution' stuff is. At it's center, a New Year's resolution is really about positive change. We want to better ourselves. To be better people, to take better care, and to do better things. And what better time to make a commitment to change than at the turn of a new year, right? So, at the heart, a New Year's resolution is a beautiful thing. So why don't we keep them? We mean well when we make them. We intend to make those changes. Right? Well, first off, change is always a challenge. It is never easy. We are creatures of habit, and old habits can be hard to break. Secondly, a New Year's resolution is hardly a plan, but more of a spur of the moment hail mary!
So, a resolution is a good thing. Do you really want to keep it? Then make a plan. Write it down. Strategize it. Figure out the specifics of how you are going to make that positive change you really want. Get serious about it. Do the things necessary to make the change a reality. A New Year's resolution, in order to be adhered to, needs to be a bit more of a ceremony. You can do it! Whatever your resolution may be, it just takes real dedication. Give yourself enough time, allow yourself a slip now and then, and ask for help. All habits, good or bad, have an underlying function. Figure out what that underlying function is, and you will unlock the secret to changing it.
So.... welcome to 2015! Welcome to another season; another season of hope, aspirations and possibilities. Reach for your purpose, your vision for your life. Make those resolutions, for they are the dreams of your higher self. May 2015 bring you closer to those dreams, as you seek the path to a better you, and a better world.... ~ John Two-Hawks
Hau kola na mitakuyepi (Hello all my friends and relatives)!
Isn't this new site cool?!! We have been exploring and researching and designing and building for many months behind the scenes, preparing and readying this new, modernized, mobile/laptop/PC responsive website.... all for you! The new day has finally come, and I welcome you all to 2015 and my brand-new website, and my new blog 'Tipi Talks'! We are running a 'Giveaway Drawing' starting today, so I wanted to elaborate a bit on the deeper meaning of the giveaway from a Lakota / Native American perspective....
The custom of the giveaway goes way back in our culture. Many American Indian nations have...
The old ones know this truth – no two spirit roads are the same. It is not our place to see the way for others, only to see the way for ourselves. There is great wisdom in the understanding that each of us has a personal walk with Spirit. And that walk is indeed, personal. It is unique for each of us. And yet, we are not alone in our journey. We have each other to share with, and to learn from. For if we only see the world from our own perspective and close out all others, we will become narrow and shallow in our thinking and in our spirit. We will lose our connection to the greater good, and the oneness that exists in us all. This doesn’t mean we will always understand the view from the eyes of another. In fact, many times we won’t! What it does mean is that we have a responsibility to open our hearts and our ears and listen, that we may strengthen our humility through learning, and grow our wisdom through exploring the unknown. It is in that spirit that I share with you now….
In the Lakota way of life, we honor the seven directions of the Sacred Hoop. The seven directions are: 1. The East, 2. The South, 3 The West, 4. The North, 5. Mother/Grandmother Earth, 6. Father Sky, and 7. The Center. There are more details to each of these; I have kept to the basics to keep this discussion simple. These seven sacred winds are the sacred points on the spiritual journey of the good red road of life. They teach us how to live in each phase, how to look back and learn, how to look forward and seek, how to look down and grow, and how to look up and reach. There is an irony in the seven directions of the sacred hoop that I want to share with you. It is this: You cannot fully grasp the 7th direction until you experience the other 6. And yet, you cannot fully fathom all the lessons of the other 6 directions until you understand the 7th! Seems a bit like a dog chasing its tail doesn’t it? This is what it means to touch the spirit with your feet on the ground....
We walk on this earth. Our feet, our bodies and our rhythms are connected to the ground. We must remember this when we reach for the sky. For if, in that reaching, we lose our grounding, our sense of who and what we are, we will find ourselves adrift, rolling about in the spiritual ether like tumbleweed, with no root and of no use to anyone. We will bounce about from this to that, from here to there, unable to make deep connections and learn deep truths. We will tumble along with every strong wind that blows, chasing the swirling dust only to find that it vanishes like an apparition before us when we try to catch it. And so we must return to the earth. We must plant ourselves in its truth. We must seek not the quick and fleeting fanfare of a passing cloud, but rather commit to the long wait of deep roots and profound wisdom found only in the ground of our sacred path; the quiet, unassuming trail of respect, honor, humility and sacrifice. And so it is that we can really only touch the spirit and connect to its great power if we are planted with firm roots in the soil of humility, balance and love. Such is the way of the sacred hoop. We can only touch the 7th direction if we are planted in the other 6.
John Two-Hawks - Grammy nominated Native American Flute Music Recording Artist, author, activist and speaker. FULL BIO