A radical option for us is to give up all foods that are not indigenous to this hemisphere and to only prepare those Native plants and animals in the same ways that our ancestors traditionally ate them. Not everyone would be enthused about eating only unrefined and unprocessed foods, but some people do. A notable example is Matt Graham, a long distance runner who lives outdoors under tarps, makes tools like spears and arrowheads from flint, runs only in sandals he made himself and only eats foods he finds outdoors, such as raccoons and coyotes (that he makes jerky from), and to fuel his body on long runs he depends on sunflower and chia seeds. This strategy of living off the land seems to work; he recently completed a 55-mile race in less than seven hours, and the three racers who placed ahead of him were on horseback.1
Historically, it is true that Natives did not fry everything and they were constantly active. Nor did they breathe, drink or eat pollutants. And therein lay a catch: today, much meat and fish are contaminated with PCPs and other toxins. In other words, diets of people in one century may not necessarily be practical for those of us in another century for the simple reality that today there are many more variables to consider. This is especially true of northern tribes who mainly depended on blubber and meats. For example, some researchers write that many of the animals—and especially parts of the animals like the kidneys, beaver tail, depot fat of the harbor seal, sheep intestine—are high in saturated fat, as much as 65 percent and Natives consumed this fat on a regular basis.2 While tribespeople did eat more parts of the deer, elk, buffalo, etc. than we night today, they were consistently active and did not eat processed or toxin-laden foods that would have devastated their health, like a modern diet has affected us. But we can try to eat in a similar fashion. According to the Mayo Clinic, three ounces of deer meat, for example, contains 134 calories, as opposed to 259 calories for the same amount of beef. (This is a composite of all cuts that have been trimmed and cooked).3 Other types of venison (elk, reindeer, moose, caribou) also are lower in fat than beef.
Few of us are willing to give up all sweets, milk products, chips and pizza. Some argue that we don’t have to abstain from processed foods to stay healthy, but that we must eat them only in moderation. Regardless of the arguments over the intricacies of nutrition, many Native activists advocate educating ourselves about our histories in order to take a stand against colonization and that includes studying the way our people used to eat. One symptom of accepting colonization is adhering to the typical American diet even while it is killing us.
All Natives can do the same. A “clean” lifestyle that includes a diet free of (or minimal use of) processed foods, no use of commercial cigarettes, moderate drinking and daily exercise, will bring many rewards. And it can come easily if we remain optimistic. Proper living will keep our weight down and our blood pressure normal and energy high. Even twenty minutes of exercise per day, three days a week can reduce the chances of developing diabetes. Studies reveal that a reduction of 5-10% of the body weight of obese individuals can reduce the chances of developing cancer by 58%.
By gaining good health we also gain confidence, pride in ourselves and in our tribe’s rich traditions. Even small steps are greatly meaningful. Contact members of your tribe and exchange traditional recipes. Try to make one traditional meal per week, then begin incorporating two or three per week. Walk around the block each morning.
One thing to keep in mind is that everyone is different. Some cannot properly digest milk products or gluten. Some are allergic to certain foods. Some are able to eat many eggs and other animals products per week without a change to their cholesterol level, while others have difficulty even when they eat few animal products. Others have high blood pressure even though they exercise and are careful about their diets. My father, for example, was an exceptionally thin distance runner who was obsessive about his diet, yet he inherited, and retained, his high blood pressure.
Making choices about the foods we eat can be greatly empowering, not only for our bodies, but also for our minds. The traumatic effects of colonization continue to be devastating, wreaking havoc on our emotions and thoughts. Feelings of insecurity, identity confusion, anger, frustration and despair are common among Natives. Looking to alcohol and drugs or to physically abusing others are not rational ways to find relief.
Our emotional and psychological issues must be dealt with holistically. We must engage our elders. We must recover our traditional indigenous knowledge to discover how our ancestors solved their problems. We must care for our families and communities so that we become part of the circle of people who support each other in times of grief and pain. We must become educated about our tribes’ rich histories and cultures to develop pride in ourselves. We must become politically active and pressure our tribal councils to make certain that they deal fairly and impartially with the myriad issues that tribal people face (educational systems; policy and laws including juvenile justice; treaty rights; economic development; environmental protection and management; health care; housing maintenance; language programs, etc).
But our tribal leaders cannot change everything for us and besides, many Natives live in urban environments far from their tribal communities. What we can do for ourselves is to change our diets and activity levels and thus change our health. By eating right we are less likely to crave dangerous substances, to lash out at others and we are more likely to become happy, contributing members to our families, communities and tribes. Working to eradicate racism, stereotypes, and discrimination and to improve curriculums, social services, and the environment gives us strength and provides hope for others. Becoming aware of our tribes’ history, learning our language, engaging our elders, and becoming politically active all contribute towards decolonizing, building pride and shaping our identity as Indigenous people. Improving diets and lifestyles is all a part of the larger picture of empowering our tribes, our communities, our families and ourselves. In other words, as we heal ourselves we can assist in healing others.
Taken from Devon Mihesuah, "Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness" (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), pp. 7-8. Chart from Mihesuah’s classroom power point presentation; please credit.
1. Biana Dumas, “Back to Nature: Primitive Runner Discovered in Utah,” Trail Runner #26 (March 2004): 18-19.
2. Sally Fallon, Mary G. Enig, “Guts and Grease: The Diet of Native Americans,” http://www.westonaprice.org/traditional_diets/native_americans.html
3. “Venison: Nutrition content of game meat,” at http://www.mayoclinic.com/invoke.cfm?id=HQ00735&si=1596. See also Bonnie Brae Farms’ comparison of venison with other foods at http://www.bonniebraefarms.com/venison.html