Health Problems

History of Declining Health

Were there advantages to the lifestyles of historic Natives? After consuming all these unprocessed, nutritious foods and being physically active, one might think that tribes would be in superior physical condition. At one time, they were. Anthropologist Richard Steckel argues that Plains tribes (Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux) in the late 1800s, (after introduced to horses but prior to being confined to reservations), were at one time the tallest people on earth. Their nomadic lifestyle kept them literally running from accumulated wastes and parasites; their varied diet that included game animals (buffalo, antelope, deer) and native plants provided all the nutrients they needed. An active lifestyle burned energy (calories) so being overweight was uncommon.1

George Catlin seems to back that up in his observations about Crows and Blackfeet: “A Crow is known wherever he is met by his beautiful white dress, and his tall and elegant figure; the greater part of the men being six feet high. The Blackfeet on the other hand, are more of the Herculean make -- about middling stature, with broad shoulders, and great expansion of chest …”2

And his comments about the about the Osages of the southern plains are as impressive: “The Osages may justly be said to be the tallest race of men in North America, either of red or white skins; there being very few indeed of the men, at their full growth, who are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet. They are at the same time well-proportioned in their limbs, and good looking; being rather narrow in the shoulders, and, like most all very tall people, a little inclined to stoop; not throwing the chest out, and the head and shoulders back, quite as much as the Crows and Mandans, and other tribes amongst which I have been familiar. Their movement is graceful and quick; and in war and the chase, I think they are equal to any of the tribes about them.”3

One feature of the Natives that many observers traveling through America noticed immediately were unstained and undamaged teeth. Polish politician Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, for example, noted in his extensive meanderings about the Natives of the New York area (possibly the Mohawks) that, “their color appears to me exactly that of our Gypsies; straight black hair, hanging down, beautiful teeth, thoughtful countenance.”4

There is reason for this. Physician S. Boyd Eaton and his colleagues who compiled The Paleolithic Prescription (1988) discovered that humans who lived in the Late Paleolithic period rarely suffered from cavities because of their unprocessed diet as compared to at least 70 per cent of people who lived in 1900 England, who ate much sugar and refined grains. Because of the dramatic rise in the use of sugarcane and sugar beets, by 1900, Boyd found that the incidence of tooth caries (decay) was 35 times as frequent as in prehistoric Britain.5

Other researchers became interested in the factors behind tooth decay. Weston A. Price was a Cleveland dentist who acted on his curiosity about the deteriorating health of his patients by traveling the world in the 1930s to study fourteen different comparatively “less modern” cultures: Dinkas of Sudan, Gaelic fishermen and women of Outer Hebrides, Inuits of Alaska (he calls them Eskimos), Maori of New Zealand, Masai and other cattle-herding tribes of Africa, Swiss mountains villagers, in addition to Canadian tribespeople, Seminoles of the Everglades, Amazonians and Aborigines of Australia. His studies revealed similarities in all the cultures: almost no degenerative illness, almost no cavities, no cancer and no tuberculosis. Interestingly, the Swiss people he studied had no cavities, yet they did not brush or floss their teeth. He makes an important point of about cavity prevention: he discovered that this superior health and strong teeth was a direct result of diets that featured no processed foods. None of the foods the people he studied consumed were touched by pesticides, additives or chemicals; all diets included saturated fats from animal sources; no foods contained polyunsaturated oils; most ate a form of fermented food; animal organs were consumed; grains were soaked, soured or fermented. He found no low-fat diets and no vegetarians. Polynesians ate coconut oil. Alaskans tribes ate fat. Some (Africans, Alaskans, Scottish, Swiss), in fact, ate very few vegetables The Masai of Africa ate almost all meat and blood. All except the Alaskans ate insects and all ate seafood when they could. Price discovered that these people ate at least ten times as much vitamins A and D and at least four times as many other vitamins and minerals.6

If we were eat like the people Price studies, we would be healthy, as long as we did not incorporate sugar, pies, cakes, French fries, bread, pizza, etc. into the mix. Of course, finding pesticide and additive-free meats and produce is challenging enough. It would be disastrous indeed for anyone to begin eating whole milk and fatty meats if they also indulged in processed foods. And this is precisely what Price found out. The Hawaiians that he studied ate fish, coconuts, sweet potatoes and fresh fish. But he was able to document what happened as soon as they were exposed to processed foods: they quickly became obese and diabetic. After only one generation of eating processed and refined foods, Price found that many of the children of those who indulged in unhealthy eating (usually white bread, jams, jellies, canned fruits and vegetables and no eating whole grains and milk products for those who had that available) had children with narrower faces, crowded teeth and “pinched nostrils.” Children who were sent to “civilized” schools that offered processed, greasy, fatty, salty and sugary foods returned with tooth decay and poor health.

It did not take long after contact with Europeans for the health of Natives to deteriorate. The effects of contact and subsequent colonization were numerous and complex and we cannot point to a single reason as to why we are in our predicaments. As I have written in elsewhere, the major problems Indigenous peoples face—and still continue to deal with because there is no such thing as “post colonial”--include the loss of land; the loss of population through war, sterilization, disease, policies of genocide, low birth rate as a result of poor health, changing cultures and removal/relocation; a dependency on material goods that resulted in competition between tribes; alcoholism and other forms of self abuse; a change of environment that includes a loss of plants and animals; gender role change (the loss of respect for females’ important social, political, economic and religious roles and the loss of men’s hunting roles); factionalism within tribes or Inter- and intra-tribal differences that lead to “culturalism” and “ethnocentrism;” a dilution and loss of cultural knowledge; dilution of “indigenous blood” (there are more mixed bloods than full bloods today); depression and other mental problems associated with being disempowered; internalizing colonial ideologies that result in feeling confused about identity, feelings of inferiority, apathy and/or helplessness; the continued subjugation of Natives because the ideology of Manifest Destiny is still in effect; a loss of intellectual rights (theft of knowledge by scholars and others for the purpose of personal gain); continued monitoring of tribal governance policies and procedures by the Federal Government; Native voices are subsumed, dismissed and/or devalued in politics, academia, the entertainment industry and publishing.

One of the more obvious manifestations of colonization is the extreme change in health conditions (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.) of Natives brought on by regressing from a diet of vegetables, fruits, game meats and active hunting/gathering/cultivating lifestyle to a daily routine consuming a diet of processed, fatty, salted diet and sitting still. We can see this everyday around us in our communities and sadly, in our own homes.

Despite the many conveniences of “modern living,” that in most respects has made our lives easier than what our ancestors’ faced, such as automobiles, telephones, medicines, electricity, refrigerators, pollution control, disease diagnosis, computers, etc., in many ways we clearly have gone backwards. There are too many tempting choices that are not healthy. Many Natives have become comfortable in their sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits. That is, of course, until the effects of said lifestyle begins killing them. 7

The long journey to bad health begins simultaneously in many places in history, although I would argue that psychological factors are a major factor in staying healthy. Depression over loss of land, culture, and tribal members set up many Natives for vulnerability to the effects of alcohol that the French and British brought in large quantities to trade. Many Choctaws, for example, became addicted to alcohol that was brought by non-Native traders and British who desired to trade for deer hides. Natives in other parts of the country also succumbed to alcohol addiction, which not only affected their ability to move around physically and to think logically, alcohol also impaired their bodies’ ability to absorb nutrients.

Looking at the Choctaws again, after removal to Indian Territory in the first part of the 1830s, the tribe continued to cultivate corn, beans, squashes, and melons as well as to raise pigs. With the decline of the deer hide trade, some Chahtas with the means turned to raising cattle. After the Civil War, Chahtas continued to grow corn and potatoes in large quantities, in addition to raising cattle, swine and sheep.8 But the influx of “American” foods and recipes began to take its toll on them and other Natives.

As animals were hunted out from deer hide trade (such as in the southeast), fur trade (in the north and in Canada) and for sport (most notably the bison), and as the waterways were diverted and polluted, and as tribes were confined to smaller areas the people were unable to hunt, fish, gather and plant as they once had. Instead of depending on themselves, Natives were forced to eat what they could forage or trade.

Some indigenous children who attended boarding schools often were fed an abundance of food, but often it was quite different from what they were accustomed to eating. Greasy, salty sugary foods and those made with wheat and milk were not traditional tribal foods. Some schools had small gardens for the students to cultivate and often more affluent parents brought in vegetables, fruits and games meats (such as at the Cherokee Female and Male Seminaries). But this healthy portion of their diet was overshadowed by an inordinate amount of white flour (for bread, pancakes and gravy), sugar (for pies, syrup and candy) and milk products (butter, cheese, cream), in addition to coffee, tea and lard.

In addition, any knowledge a child might have about medicinal foods, agricultural techniques, seed preservation, and blessings that correspond to planting, growing and harvesting were not supported nor reinforced. Children who did not know this information were denied access to those tribal members who could teach them. Generations of indigenous children were therefore ignorant of how to properly plant and locate traditional foods, which meant that unless there were family or tribal educational intervention, the children and grandchildren of boarding school students also received no information abut this crucial aspect of their culture.

Chahta students had a varied, but high-fat diet at the Choctaw Academy in Kentucky in 1828, in which the students consumed bacon, beef, mutton—baked and broiled—soup, corn bread and wheat bread, “the best of” coffee, pies, apple dumplings, molasses, milk, shoat baked and broiled, beans, cabbage, potatoes, turnips, salads, peas, “hommony [sic] great and small,” butter and rice.9 At the Spencer Academy (ten miles north of Doaksville) served meat (unspecified), sweet potatoes, molasses, peanuts and hominy. Strawberries and raspberries grew around the school and were harvested, as was honey. The boys caught squirrels, fish and other game, presumably deer. One student after the Civil War recalled that meals were repetitious and consisted of “beef, corn bread, milk and a cup of coffee. Biscuits were given only on Sunday morning.” Another student concurred, stating that he recalled most vividly prunes, rice (whether white or whole grain is unknown), sugar, coffee, vegetables, pork corn, wheat, beef, milk and butter.10

This kind of boarding school diet was common among the Choctaws and Cherokees at least. Young women at the Cherokee Female Seminary (located first in Park Hill, then rebuilt later in Tahlequah to the north of the Choctaw Nation) consumed an array of food, especially after the Civil War: fruits and vegetables (much of it from their parent’s gardens), grains, meats, eggs, butter, oil, sugar, salt, buttermilk, desserts. Students also were given spending money so their students could buy foods in Tahlequah during field trips: bread, candy, sugar cookies, salted nuts, suckers, chewing gum and tamales. The girls consumed so much fats and sugar that the administration became concerned about their weight gain and number of stomach aches reported to the schools’ physician. The students also suffered many ailments normally associated with groups of people being confined in a relatively small area. Physicians treated their various problems with mercurial purgation, turpentine emulsion, quinine, Dover’s Powder and hot whiskey toddies.11

I recall that when writing an essay, “Medicine for the Rose Buds” that became part of the book, I made a comment that the women looked hefty in comparison to Natives of other tribes at the same time period. The professor of that class remarked “Meow. That’s catty. Take that out.” I did, but my comment stemmed from a concern not only over the large amount of fat and carbohydrates they ate in comparison to caloric expenditure, but also because of the long list of physical ailments they suffered as a result of their diet such as constipation, “bowel complaint,” and hemorrhoids, in addition to headaches, “fevers,” diarrhea, chills, tonsillitis, rheumatism, neuralgia, scrofula, jaundice, colic, ulcers, “skin eruptions,” “La Grippe,” and “summer complaint” that resulted from the foods not being properly cooled in warm months. Further, the curriculums at both the male and female seminaries contained nothing about traditional Cherokee culture, including traditional food cultivation and preparation.

As were other Natives, many Choctaws were well aware of the material goods of white society. What white America ate, many of the Choctaws ate. By the late 1880s, Choctaws (especially those who could not afford to buy groceries) still consumed fruit and vegetables they cultivated themselves in addition to hogs and wild game. They also utilized coffee and bread made from wheat. Merchants stocked vegetables, but also butter, eggs, nuts, sugar, candy, cakes, molasses and nuts.12 While Choctaws had the ability to grow their food, other tribes, after being placed on reservations, suffered from malnutrition (because of inadequate food provided by the Federal government) and a variety of ailments brought on from crowded living conditions and poor sanitary conditions, not to mention depression and frustration from being unable to live the way they did previously.

Navajos underwent similar changes. The tribe went from cultivating beans, chilies, corn, melons and squash to heartily accepting the introduction of sheep by the early 1800s. Throughout the first half of that century Navajos continues to consume fruits, vegetables, sheep and game meats, but by the 1860s the tribe was overwhelmed by the intrusive Americans who proceeded to force them onto a reservation where farming was difficult. They no longer could rely on the land for sustenance and depended on near-inedible government rations, especially meat. Around this time they began consuming lard, sugar, tea and coffee. Through the 1930s and 1940s the tribespeople continued also to eat fruits, vegetables and meats, but by the 1950s their diet continued to change when they became dependent on trading store foods such as canned milk, lard, peanut butter, sugar, wheat flour and soda pop. While many families still raised their own vegetable foods, others continued to consume processed foods that had once been unknown to them.13

I distinctly recall my grandparents’ garden in Muscogee. My grandmother Eula was an original Choctaw enrollee who, like her Irish husband Thomas, came from a family who liked to grow much of their food. “Big Tom and Nana” cultivated a huge garden with neat rows of corn, potatoes, pole beans, strawberries, squashes, onions, and surrounding the garden was a wooden fence where black and raspberries twined their way up the poles and grew until their stems were as big as small trees. Around the house were fruit trees of all kinds. I recall this garden with such fondness that it plays a major role in my novel Roads of My Relations (Arizona, 2000), in which I use family stories and scenarios to create eleven generations of one family; food is a huge part of those stories and each generation tries to recreate that garden planted by the matriarch Billie. Just like other Natives who plant and lovingly care for their gardens, they can still run into great health problems if they also eat fatty, processed and refined foods. Green beans, squash and corn are a terrific lunch, but these foods are greatly diminished if cooked in butter, salt and supplemented by greasy fried chicken.

More recently, anthropologist Sandra Faiman-Silva found that those less acculturated Choctaws in Oklahoma prefer to shop at stores they are familiar with, but the problem is that the prices are higher and the quality of food is poor (frozen foods are found to be outdated and spoiled and selection of items is scarce). In a survey, she found that many of these Choctaws were likely to be poor and bought food on credit with the stores where they had long-standing accounts. In addition to finding inadequate food at many of the stores, Choctaws also fall victim to the credit trap, in which the store owners charge an exorbitant amount for them to use credit instead of cash.14

At the same time that diets were changing, so was the level of physical activity. After being confined to reservations, tribal members were not only too disheartened to “play,” they also were too busy trying to survive on poor food the government provided. Hunting societies of the plains lost the opportunity to rigorously hunt and butcher game animals. Tribes who previously depended on foraging could not range about, either. The exception to the Natives who were unable to move about were some of the students at boarding schools who played on basketball, baseball and football teams. But even then, their diets were not optimal and after they left the schools, many had no sports teams to play on. Unless they ran, or worked the family farm or ranch, their level of physical activity dropped.

Taken from Devon A. Mihesuah, Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), pp. 47-54.

1. Jeff Grabmeier, “Standing Tall: Plains Indians Enjoyed Height, Health Advantage,” Story based on research of Richard Steckel. In a personal 26 Jan 2004 communication with Steckel, he confirms that information used for his study was garnered from measurements taken from by Franz Boas or his assistants in the late 1800s. He is now in the process of using “satellite images that measure (indirectly) the biomass of the various Plains environments where the various tribes lived. This biomass (roughly plant availability) would have been relevant not only for the buffalo but also for direct human consumption (roots, berries, agriculture and so forth).”

2. George Catlin, Letter #7 in Letters and Notes at

3. idem, Letter #38 at

4. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree. Travels Through America in 1797-1799, 1805 With Some Further Account of Life in New Jersey (New Jersey: Grassman Publishing Co., 1965), p. 31

5. S. Boyd Eaton,, Marjorie Shostak, Melvin Konner, The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p.35

6. Weston A. Price, DDS., Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (San Diego: Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, 1945).

7. For eye-opening discussions about the many horrors of historic living, see Otto L., Dr. Bettmann, The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible (New York: Random House, 1974). Even more shocking is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (Tuscon: The Sharp Press, 2003).

8. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1872, pp. 402-403. Graebner, Laura Baum. "Agriculture Among the Five Civilized Tribes: 1840- 1906." Red River Valley Historical Review 3 (1978): 45-61; Graebner, Norman Arthur. "Pioneer Indian Agriculture in Oklahoma." Chronicles of Oklahoma 23 (1945): 232-48.

9. Carolyn Thomas Foreman, “The Choctaw Academy,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma (December 1928) 6: 4, pp. 463-4.

10. “Recollections of Peter Hudson,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 10 (December 1932), 519. “Interview with J. Norman Leard,” Grant Foreman, ed., Indian and Pioneer Papers, vol. 78. Collection in a variety of places: Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City. It is also on microfilm.

11. See D. Mihesuah, Cultivating the RoseBuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 85-94, for the [many] specific citations of food and health care at the female and male seminaries. I first presented information about this topic in 1988 at the Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference in Waco, Texas, and won the Won Phi Alpha Theta writing/research award.

12. James D. Morrison, The Social History of the Choctaw Nation: 1865-1907 (Durant: Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, 1987), pp. 103-4; 107

13. Judy Kopp, “Cross-cultural Contacts: Changes in the Diet and Nutrition of the Navajo Indians,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 10:4 (1986): 1-30. Essays that discuss the negative affects of a non-traditional diet include: James Justice’s “Twenty Years of Diabetes on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 13:3/4 (1989): 49-82.

14. Sandra Faiman-Silva, Choctaws at the Crossroads: The Political Economy of Class and Culture in the Oklahoma Timber Region (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), p. 167.