Dedicated to John Mohawk
We are what we eat.'' It is a saying that everyone has heard at one time or another. In today's world, this saying should be updated: ''We are what we eat, and how we grow what we eat.'' When we feel sick, do we ever look to our food for medicine? Most of us probably do not see food as medicine, but we do see it as the very stuff that makes us sick.
Heart disease, diabetes and obesity are alarmingly high and on the rise among Indian youth. It is no surprise that food is making us sick. We are bombarded with advertising that pushes us to buy junk food, which is sometimes the only food we can afford to buy. In 1999, for example, 70 percent of food advertisements promoted junk food or soda pop, compared to just 2 percent of ads promoting healthy vegetables and fruits. The health crisis facing our youth is encouraged by the commercials selling the latest multi-colored junk food that air throughout cartoon shows.
The late John Mohawk spoke at a recent food sovereignty conference sponsored by Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico, along with the Native American
Traditional Farmers Association and the New Mexico Acequia Association. A vocal proponent of natural foods, he described the impact on our youth this way: ''The teenagers are the most vulnerable, because teenagers just do what is popular. They don't think stuff through. A bottle of pop doesn't scare them. It should scare any knowledgeable adult but it doesn't scare teenagers.''
Our food is not our medicine anymore. Rather, it is one of the main causes of our health crisis. Even the way we grow our food pollutes the environment, as well as our bodies. Industrial agriculture requires the excess spraying of food crops with biocides. This has been costly to our soil, the very living skin from which our food is grown. The slow death of soil is one of the justifications to keep spraying fertilizers. The agricultural runoff from commercial farming lands along the mighty Mississippi River has converted the ocean shores in the Gulf of Mexico into what scientists call dead zones.
There is something very wrong when a nation's food-growing processes kill the very elements that keep it going. A third of all the food we eat comes from crops that need pollinators, something that bees are pretty good at. However, the bee population, like other important pollinating insects, in North America and Europe are starting to show a rapid decline that is already having a severe impact on food production. Our relentless use of deadly chemicals in agriculture is one of the major reasons for this decline.
In Tesuque Pueblo, they have started a community farm as a way to provide the tribe with healthy food and an additional source of income. When discussing the relationship of food and sovereignty, Mohawk said, ''It is getting harder and harder to find communities that still have a lot of their own traditional foods. There is a connection between the loss of traditional foods and the array of health issues that dominate the conversations in Indian country. As anyone who lives in Indian country knows, we are beset by diabetes, heart disease ... all of which have appeared since the change in diet. All of these sicknesses can be changed with a traditional diet. The traditional diet is actually an antidote to this epidemic.'' Those who attended the conference were given a taste of this antidote. Lunch and dinner were prepared with this year's delicious crops, which, other than the bear meat donated by Taos Pueblo, were all grown at the Tesuque community farm.
Eating these meals was liberating. One can taste how good it is when the community takes back their right to good food. It was great to talk with the youth that attended the conference. They were there because they were interested in community farming back home. Some have already begun this work, converting empty city lots to lush green gardens and restoring the life that once thrived behind their grandparents' house. A common thread throughout the conference was how the experience has helped young people cultivate a sense of identity and a stronger connection to the land and the health of their communities. Mohawk, speaking about Indian youth and their sense of identity, noted, ''It would help an awful lot if people subjected themselves to information about what kinds of diets they could adapt.'' He added, ''This would help them avoid the degenerative diseases that are causing tremendous cultural disruption. People are not even growing old enough to acquire their culture and become elders.''
Food is our medicine only when the land we walk on is treated right. Eating good produce from local and organic farms can help our communities survive. Nothing comes as close to sovereignty than when the food our families eat come from the lands our families walk on. As Mohawk put it, ''Our battle is one that our tribal councils can't wage; it is the people that have to do it. The people have to step up and say we are going to take action and change the way we live. We are going to stop eating things that kill us; we are going to take up behaviors that enhance the flowers of the nation.''
Maceo Carrillo Martinet, Taino and Mexican, is a student of ecology and education. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.