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Nabhan: Make your Thanksgiving dinner a celebration of American Indian foods

Up until the last few years, if you were to try to replicate an original American Indian meal served at the time of the first Thanksgiving, you would have immediately run into nearly insurmountable problems sourcing authentic ingredients derived from the animals and plants found in America at the time of the Pilgrims' fateful landing. Not only have Native farming traditions vanished from most of the continent, but it had become very difficult to access the very turkey breeds and heirloom seeds upon which American food traditions were founded. The hardy, flavorful Narragansett, Black Spanish and Royal Palm turkeys of our forefathers have largely been replaced by Beltsville Whites that were so over-domesticated; the modern hens required artificial insemination to ensure survival of the breed. Likewise, the colorful varieties of beans like Son-of-Star - the precursor of Great Northerns that had been handed down for generations among Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara gardeners - were close to blinking out altogether.

Fortunately, there are many tribes as well as many non-profits that are reaching back to recover what I call "foods with true American roots" - the traditional breadstuffs that American Indian farmers, foragers and hunters have relied upon for centuries. For instance, Iroquois white corn has undergone a remarkable revival, thanks to a collaboration among the Daybreak Farming and Food Project, the Pinewoods Community, Chefs Collaborative and Bioneers. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Slow Food USA have revived the propagation and marketing of five historic turkey breeds, and chefs are now paying as much of $50 a bird to serve them for this Thanksgiving. Over the last quarter century, Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Seed Savers Exchange have rescued hundreds of varieties of American Indian corn, beans and squash on the verge of extinction. For years, non-profits like Native Seeds/SEARCH have supplied such seeds for free to Native gardeners, but recently I assisted them in repatriating dozens of varieties of these historic seeds back to Hopi and Havasupai communities, where some of the crops had been originally collected between 1910 and 1950. Tribes from the Zuni and Hopi to the Haudenosaunee now maintain their own seed banks of such cultural treasures.

There are two good reasons why every culture native to American soil should be engaged in reviving these food traditions. First, the ceremonies, songs and stories of many tribes are inextricably linked to the planting and harvesting cycles of particular crops, and modern hybrids are no substitute for them. As one young Hopi man learned when he tried to bring store-bought baby white lima beans into the kiva, there is no match for the original mottled Hopi lima, which can be buried deep in sand and still emerge to grow prolifically. To keep our cultures, we need to keep up our agri-cultures.

Secondly, and even more urgently, these foods are desperately needed by the many individuals in American Indian communities who now suffer from adult-onset diabetes, a disease virtually unknown to our elders born before 1900. The rise in diabetes on reservations is linked to the abandonment of traditional diets rich in what nutritionists call "slow release foods" - the beans, cactus fruits, camas, acorns, mesquite and roasted mescal that are slowly digested and absorbed in ways that enhance insulin sensitivity. A quarter million American Indians in the Southwest now suffer from diabetes, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll this disease takes on our communities is one of the great tragedies of Indian country.

A coalition of non-profits and research centers has recently formed to launch a nationwide campaign called Rescuing America's Endangered Food Traditions. They are raising support to revitalize local fields, orchards and foraging traditions that are associated with a variety of wild and cultivated foods of this continent, from herring roe and ooligan smelt grease in Tlingit country to bird peppers and tepary beans in the lands of the Tohono O'odham spanning the Arizona-Mexico border. They are inviting tribal agricultural programs as well as boarding school gardens, elderly homes and farming co-ops in Indian country to join with them to ensure that these healthy foods live on in the lands that originally nurtured them. These, my brothers and sisters, are the lands where they are most needed today, as calories and cures, as the sources of stories and songs.

This Thanksgiving, do not grieve the changes that have occurred in the Americas over the last five centuries; instead pray for the revival of the foods of your ancestors, and pledge to bring them back, if not for yourself, then for the next seven generations.

Gary Nabhan teaches in the Applied Indigenous Studies Program at Northern Arizona University, where he also directs the Center for Sustainable Environments. He is author of numerous books, including Coming Home and Eat and Enduring Seeds. For more information about the Rescuing America's Endangered Food Traditions Campaign, contact him at gary.nabhan@nau.edu, or visit www.environment.nau.edu.