Traditional Foods

Traditional Foods: Part II

“…good food is power.”

Cissimarie Juan, Tohono O’odham TOCA Project

Join us as we explore the traditional foods movement in Native America. Unlike others, this food movement is not founded on ‘nutritionism.’ Instead, the traditional foods movement is grounded in the concept of food sovereignty and reclaiming traditional diets where food, culture, and community intersect.

This is a revival of the foods our ancestors cultivated, gathered, hunted, and preserved. A revival of tribal gardens flourishing with the sweet smell of blue and white corn, brightly colored chiles and ripe berries, and countless varieties of squash. The gathering of wild foods such as beach asparagus, goose tongue, cholla buds, mesquite beans, saguaro fruit, chokecherries, polk, and Navajo tea. A restoration of fishing and hunting techniques interwoven with traditional knowledge, stories, and language. The rebirth of buffalo herds and whole foods, honoring the generations that came before us.

To better understand this restorative process, we’ve visited with some of the leaders in the traditional foods movement. In our Traditional Foods – Part I issue, we featured the Oneida Community Integrated Food System, an excellent model for food security and sustainability at the tribal level. For Part II, we’re featuring a network of tribal organizations that are restoring traditional foods systems in 17 communities from Alaska to South Carolina. A common thread in this diverse network of traditional foods programs is the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program (NDWP). According to NDWP staff, the role of their organization is best described as  “…a small tributary flowing into a large river. The communities are the leaders in this movement.”

Native Diabetes Wellness Program

The NDWP was established in 1998 as part of the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation to support community-driven projects and foster inter-tribal partnerships that promote health and help to prevent type 2 diabetes in Indian Country. Since its inception, the NWDP listened to tribal leaders and representatives who advised federal partners to respect traditional ways of knowing about health including focusing on youth and using stories, particularly since diabetes had been rare until recent times and few stories about diabetes were available. One representative summed this up by saying, “Look to the culture. Our cultures are the source of health.”  The program collaborated with tribal colleges, tribal communities, the Indian Health Service Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other partners to offer the highly acclaimed Eagle Books and contribute to the building of the Diabetes Education in Tribal Schools (DETS) K-12 school curriculum. Using an upstream approach, the NDWP focuses on the inequities that perpetuate the diabetes epidemic in Indian Country.

Among those inequities are access and availability of healthful foods for many reservations and tribal communities. Whether you call it a food desert, food insecurity, inequitable access, or any other term, the NWDP staff members feel fortunate to be a part of the solution.

In 2008, the CDC announced a funding opportunity for traditional foods cooperative agreements open to tribes and tribal organizations, Using Traditional Foods and Sustainable Ecological Approaches for Health Promotion and Diabetes Prevention in American Indian and Alaska Native Communities. The Traditional Foods Project established agreements with a total of 17 (out of 60 applicants) traditional foods partners across Indian Country in late 2009, with the total available funds for the 5-year grant (Oct 2008 through Sept 2013) program of about $7 million, with each grantee receiving about $100,000 per year.  These funds included $1 million annually from the Indian Health Service, through the Special Diabetes Programs for Indians. According to NDWP staff members Melinda Frank and Lemyra DeBruyn, the creation of a Traditional Foods Program within the NDWP was a natural fit and is really “about creating family.”

Map of the “Traditional Food Projects.” Photo courtesy of CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program.

In reality, restoring a Native food system (while using sound ecological and sustainable approaches) in five years with $500,000 is nearly impossible for any nation. Consider the number of relationships one needs to build, seeds to plant, stories to gather, weeds to pull, pounds to harvest, food to preserve, methods to record, and so on.

For this issue, I interviewed six of the 17 traditional foods partners. They have accomplished an astonishing amount in the last four years, and each has a beautiful story to tell with a unique, immeasurable impact. In the spirit of Cissimarie Juan of the Tohono O’odham TOCA Project, food is power. We hope you enjoy the following interviews:

Aleutian Priblof Islands Association (APIA)

Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Ramah Navajo Community

Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC)

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Tohono O’odham Nation

Special thanks to the staff and community members from the Aleuitan Priblof Islands Association, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Ramah Navajo Community, Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and Tohono O’odham Nation, and the Native Diabetes Wellness Program. Your commitment to restoring health, culture, and community does not go unnoticed. 

  • Try one of the traditional recipes submitted by the Traditional Food Partners. Depending on your location, some of the traditional foods listed in the recipes may not be available. If this is the case, try substituting produce, meat, or fish for a similar traditional food from your area or something harvested or sourced locally.
  • Interview elders in your community. Have them tell you about the foods they ate as children (and about the food their grandparents ate). Record their stories, and share the history of your traditional food system with others.
  • Identify people in your community who have knowledge of traditional foods, and ask them to help you start a community-sustained food project.
  • Locate one of the 17 Traditional Food Projects nearest you and coordinate a tour or traditional food exchange:

Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, Alaska

Catawba Cultural Preservation Project, South Carolina

Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma

Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Oregon

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina

Indian Health Care Resource Center of Tulsa, Oklahoma

Nooksack Indian Tribe, Washington

Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kansas

Ramah Navajo School Board, New Mexico

Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Minnesota

Salish Kootenai College, Montana

Santee Sioux Nation, Nebraska

Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Michigan

Southeast Alaska Regional Health Care Consortium, Alaska

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, North Dakota and South Dakota

Tohono O’odham Community Action, Arizona

United Indian Health Services, California

  • If you’re involved in diabetes prevention (Type 1 or 2), check out the National Indian Health Board‘s (NIHB) informational website on the “Special Diabetes Program for Indians” (SDPI). The website is an excellent resource for legislative and policy updates, local impact stories, grantee information, and educational materials.
  • Let’s Move! in Indian Country (LMIC) is a powerful initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama to reduce childhood obesity. Be sure to visit the LMIC website for updates on local events and opportunities. Feel free to reach out to the LMIC staff and share what you’re doing to reduce obesity and improve health in your tribal community. The staff is very friendly and they want to recognize your success.
  • Ms. Stephanie Woodard, Indian Country Today correspondent, has followed the NWDP’s traditional food grantees for the last four years and has published numerous articles on the impact of these projects. Here’s a wonderfully written article by Ms. Woodard from 2010. More articles can be found on the NDWP’s website. If you have an innovative project, I’m sure Stephanie would be eager to learn more and might even be interested in featuring your story.

3 responses to “Traditional Foods

  1. Healthy eating plays a major role in diabetes prevention and management, as demonstrated by a new study published online by the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggesting that choosing brown rice over white rice may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

  2. While whole grain brown rice is heathier from a nutritional perspective it is important to know that because of industrial and environmental pollution the coating (hull) on this rice can containt toxins. Organic short grain brown rice is the most nutritional and safest. I would like to see this as an choice in Commodity Food and SNAP.

  3. Pingback: Assignment #4 Food justice and/or current food movements | anijadlo·

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