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Back-to-the-Earth Food Movement Leads to More-healthful Diets

A growing number of American Indian tribes are focusing on food sovereignty to re-establish their traditional agricultural practices and restore cultural meaning to the food they eat. The movement to control tribal food systems in ways that are relevant to tribal people is especially important because of escalating rates of diabetes and hypertension among American Indians. Traditionally, food for most tribes was not divorced from its origins but embodied the nutrition of a place and the culture of the people. “The basis of food sovereignty is the power to decide for ourselves what stories we want to tell into the future. The conversation about food is never a separate piece,” says Brett Ramey, Ioway. “It is fully integrated into our day-to-day living—stories interwoven into ceremony, songs, our creation stories. The way we eat, how we share those foods, tells a story that reflects our health as a community.”

Ramey, community health outreach educator, Center for American Indian Community Health, lives on his tribe’s reservation in White Cloud, Kansas, which is on the Missouri River near the border of Kansas and Nebraska. Before returning to live on his tribal land, he worked on similar food issues in Arizona where health programs, like those in many regions throughout the U.S., are increasingly concerned with food. This year, for example, the American Indian Health Research and Education Alliance (AIHREA) pow wow sidelined fry bread and Indian tacos in favor of roasted corn and buffalo burgers, shifting the emphasis to cultural foods and traditional meaning that are also healthful. But nutrition is not only about eating the right food groups, Ramey says, “a truly balanced diet considers cultural and environmental health. It nourishes our bodies, minds and spirits, as well as strengthening relationships within our communities and the earth itself.”

“Corn sustained our people,” says Rita Williams, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the first tribe in the U.S. to institute food policy into tribal government through its Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative (MFSI). “Food connects us to our roots, but those things have been lost to us,” she says. “Historically, indigenous people lived off the land, they were guided by a higher power that gave them the insight and understanding of everything that was around them. They didn’t have book knowledge, but they lived in tune with the earth.”

Williams, MFSI education and policy coordinator, says that while the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has an agricultural tradition and land suitable for cultivation, economic development has not focused on growing food for the Muscogee (Creek) people. MFSI is working to “help our people grow again. We don’t ever forget about our food,” she says, “it is social, spiritual, physical, it provides fellowship and brings happiness.” The work of MFSI is strongly supported by Chief A.D. Ellis, who is also a farmer.
Vicky Karhu, MFSI founding director, says that in and around Okmulgee, the capital of Muscogee (Creek) Nation, there is little to no fresh food to buy. The two grocery stores in Okmulgee sell “aisle after aisle of junk food,” she says. So MFSI started by creating a farmer’s market for tribal people and the surrounding community. “The overarching goal is control of the food system, to provide food for tribal people,” says Karhu, “which includes food production and economic development. That’s what life centered around—food. We want to see as much as possible local food produced by tribal citizens to support and foster tribal feeding program purchases. The first priority is to feed tribal citizens, the second is to raise local grass-fed meat with no hormones and producing fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. We want to put good healthy food on the plates of citizens and their neighbors.”

One of the pioneers in restoring traditional food practices and protect ancestral seeds is the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) founded by Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe). WELRP advocates returning to a traditional diet, arguing that the loss of traditional foods is part of the greater loss of indigenous life that includes language and tribal lands. The Honor the Earth program, also founded by LaDuke, provides funding for indigenous projects, including food sovereignty, to help build resilience in indigenous communities and helped to fund the Mvskoke Nation and the initial food sovereignty work of the Navajo Nation.

The health of Navajo people is of critical importance in food sovereignty work and it is, at the core, a moral issue, says Jamescita Peshlakai, Navajo. Peshlakai is the lead coordinator for the fledgling food sovereignty project DINE, Inc, a Navajo Nation community nonprofit. Food is spiritual, no different than the Navajo people themselves, she says. The food sovereignty program works to preserve Navajo cultural identity through food and to improve the wellness of Navajo Nation, which are one and the same.

Growing a garden, for example, is part of a healthy, physical life, says Peshlakai, from preparing the ground, planting seeds, tending the plants, watering plants in a way that conserves water—all of those things help people care for the land and themselves, just as the ancestors were connected to the earth. “Our food policy overall is intended to retain culture and keep our ceremonial ways,” she says. “Many of our foods are ceremonial. There are foods that really have no name in English, even the preparation of food. Food is also language retention. It is one big intertwined circle.”

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The Navajo Nation food sovereignty project began several years ago with outreach projects and community demonstrations of traditional food practices. In 2010, it took shape as a nonprofit and works on “thin air,” says Peshlakai, to reach its goals of creating a food policy for Navajo Nation. “We have moved into a time when it is a moral responsibility to our society” to ensure that Navajo food ancestry is preserved, she says. As a tribal member and a traditional Navajo woman, she says, “it is my sacred duty as a mother to teach my children, my daughters, the meaning of food, the spirituality of food. It is an anchor for us.”
Even though Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe with a land base of more than more than 27,000 square miles, food traditions are quickly disappearing in part, due to acculturation. Fifty years from now, says Peshlakai, there will be a people called Navajo. If there is a food policy set down on paper, they will know who their people are and where they come from.

There are still Navajo tribal members who practice traditional ways of hunting, gathering and food preparation, she says, and they have the ancestral knowledge that the food sovereignty project is working to capture. “It is our duty for the Navajo people to provide this food policy,” she says, “it will help our children in the future. The long-term goal is the retention of tradition and culture, to utilize that knowledge to make people healthier. We are poisoning ourselves by accepting the current food policy of a society that was once determined to destroy the Native American. Apathy is killing us with what we are eating now.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) recently funded the Mvskoke program as part of a national effort to address childhood obesity. The numbers for overweight and obese children ages 6 to 11 in the U.S. have more than quadrupled in the past 40 years, while nearly 40 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children are considered overweight and obese, according to RWJF. These dire health conditions result in serious lifelong illnesses including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. “Communities of color are hardest hit by the epidemic of obesity,” says John Govea, senior program officer for the RWJF Childhood Obesity Team. “We think it is imperative for the health of the country to address this imbalance.”

RWJF has dedicated $500 million to reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S. by 2015 and funds projects that advance policies to increase access to healthy affordable food and safe places to be physically active. Communities Creating Healthy Environments supports projects that include healthy food initiatives for American Indians, such as the Mvskoke initiative, efforts to eradicate “food deserts” in urban communities, and infrastructure planning for neighborhoods without sidewalks or streetlights that make even walking a challenge.

For the Pawnee Nation, food sovereignty is found in every one of their ancestral seeds that contain their heritage or “seed memory,” as Deb Echo-Hawk, Pawnee Nation, describes it. Echo-Hawk, Keeper of the Seeds for the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project, banks and safeguards nine strains of ancestral corn. Eagle corn, each pearl-white kernel brushed with a delicate gray mark in the shape of an eagle, had all but disappeared from tribal life. That is, until a dusty jar full of seeds dating back to the 19th century was found in a Kansas museum. Originally excavated from a mud lodge in northern Kansas, the Eagle corn seed was returned to the Pawnee Nation in the 1980s and, last summer, for the first time in more than 125 years, eagle corn soup was served when the traditional Young Dog Dance was performed.

“It tastes beautiful. It’s nutty, not real sweet,” says Echo-Hawk, adding that this past year was the first time the nation had used the corn “as it was meant to be used.”

In the spring, elders who attended the Pawnee Nation blessing of the seeds ceremony talked about working with their parents to garden and farm, says Echo-Hawk. Yet somewhere along the line, that sense of community and connection to the land was lost and with it, the tradition of self-reliance and community tied to food disappeared. “Healthwise, we must revitalize ourselves and become what we used to be, what we should be,” she says. “Tribes have nothing to lose by gardening.”