EAST GLACIER PARK, Mont. - Blackfeet tribal member Marietta King watched her mother and father die after being debilitated by poor health. That's when she vowed to make lifestyle changes and help others do the same.
"When my parents passed away I began to look at my own health," she said. "I realized I was going right down the same path."
Instead of becoming another tragic statistic, King, now 50, embarked on a journey to learn all she could about healthy living, especially through diet. The journey became a trek through the largely unwritten history of traditional American Indian foods and the well-documented onslaught of afflictions that continue to devastate Native peoples today.
The outcome of King's quest for knowledge was multilayered. On the personal side, she dropped unwanted pounds and gained a new physical vibrancy by altering her diet and getting more exercise. Her many months of research also led to the writing of "Native American: Food is Medicine," a fact-packed, 160-page book that explores the prevention and control of diabetes and hyperinsulinemia, and the "Renewal of Life: Food Journal," that helps users track their daily intake of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Both books were released last year by McCleery & Sons Publishing (www.mcleerypublishing.com), based in Gwinner, N.D. Their discount price of $8.95 and $7.95, respectively, was designed to make them more affordable to low-income people, she said. She's also working on another volume that's geared more to the general population.
"We know diabetes is not prejudiced regarding race," she said. "It goes after anybody."
Although King's parents were never diagnosed with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, she said they suffered a variety of ailments - high blood pressure, liver and kidney problems, high cholesterol, severe anemia and heart maladies - that nonetheless are closely linked to poor nutrition and insulin instability. The list, she noted, is all-too-common in Indian country, where Natives are afflicted by these and other diseases at rates far higher than non-Indians.
King, like many others, believes that modern-day foods, especially those that are highly processed, are plugging up and filling out Indian people. But she also realizes that it's often impractical to give up all the goodies. That's why her "Food is Medicine" book includes an extensive catalog of recipes that combine the old with the new. The publication also reveals ways to prepare a wide variety of common and uncommon foods with less harmful fats and sweeteners.
A "Native Foods" section, for example, has directions for things like Saskatoon berry soup and baked tripe, the muscular lining of an animal's stomach. Boiled tongue, either buffalo or beef, is also on the menu, as well as blue camas, made from a type of Western bulb.
These and other natural plant and animal foods are juxtaposed with more typical dishes, such as ribs, hamburger and chicken, mainstays on most American tables. The main difference is that the entries are aimed at resembling a pre-contact diet, especially for Northern Plains tribes. In many recipes, for instance, wild game can be substituted for beef or domesticated bird.
A primary premise forwarded by King is that because Native bodies generally haven't evolved far from that of the traditional hunter-gatherer, the old food "pyramid" touted for years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to be inverted.
King, who has constructed an alternative "pyramid lodge" of desired foods, said proteins are the broad-based foundation of a healthy diet, followed by fresh vegetables and berries, unsaturated fat found in certain oils, seeds and nuts, herbs, and dairy products. Grains and sweets are at the top of the lodge, meaning they should be consumed the least and in the smallest quantities.
"Nobody wants to give up fry bread," she said. "But there are ways to prepare it so it's not so harmful to us."
King maintains that because good nutrition is so closely tied to health, wholesome and properly prepared food is a key component to happiness and overall well-being. She explains that in the pyramid lodge, the Creator secures the four poles symbolizing the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental staples of a healthy life.
"The four poles may also symbolize the stages of life: birth, youth, adult and old age; and to the four seasons, spring, summer, fall and winter, or the four races, white, yellow, black and red," she wrote. "The Creator is the common thread that holds everything together ..."
"We now know that the typical food pyramid is resulting in the fattening of America," the slender King said from her modest home, which also doubles as an office and studio for completing her distinctive artwork. "The life force of the plant we eat or the animal we eat becomes part of us. If we're eating out of the can, there's no life in that. It's dead."
Along with knowledge, changing behavior means altering a mindset. King, who holds an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice, a master's degree in Counseling and Psychology and formerly served as the academic dean at Blackfeet Community College, is acutely aware that breaking old habits is tough work.
But times are changing, she said. The federal government is rethinking its outdated food pyramid, and commodity programs now include buffalo and fresh fruits and vegetables - if your community has the proper refrigeration in its storage areas. She also noted that the main grocery store in Browning, the Blackfeet Reservation's capital, has been willing to stock a variety of different, more-healthful items. The same can be true elsewhere if customers prove that's what they want.
"Having access to those types of food on most reservations is a big issue," King explained. "If you're in poverty, you often have to eat macaroni and cheese. And that's killing us. But we can focus on the problems if we want, but that's not going to change the problems. When we focus on moving forward, when we look at the things in our community that are working, then we can move ahead."
King also doesn't blame modern Indian families for the food dilemmas they're facing. Many of their unhealthy eating habits were introduced in the boarding school system and other foreign places Native peoples were forced to go.
"We learned to drink milk and eat sandwiches and frozen food, things like that," she said. "But when we take time to make our food in a loving and caring way, that gets passed on to our food. Compare that to going to McDonald's or any other restaurant. Then we usually don't know who made the food or where it came from. Fortunately, there's a new awareness going through Indian country about health. I see nothing but going forward for that."