Kermit Smith of the Assiniboine tribe in Montana fondly recalls the meals of his childhood. His grandmother always had dried venison on hand, and the family would navigate the hills all spring looking for turnips. “I still have a couple of long braids of turnips that my grandmother dug up in the late 40s and 50s,” Smith says. “You just dry them and as you need them you cut them off and put them in your soups. Primarily they were used in soup, which was a staple. That was all you had, and it was all you needed for a good well-rounded diet: turnips and your dry meat, or you’d throw in a fresh rabbit and other animals.”
Fast-forward a few decades and Smith, a doctor of osteopathy, is stunned to encounter an obese five-year-old Native American girl with type 2 diabetes. Encounters like that one might have continued to shock Smith, a former chief medical officer for the federal Indian Health Service, had they not become so commonplace among American Indians. “By 1990 we had probably 200 kids under age 16 who had adult onset diabetes,” recounts Smith. “This was in the Pima tribe, but it’s everywhere now and it’s all related to nutrition and diet.”
Some 17% of American Indians and Alaska Natives have diabetes, the highest prevalence among all US racial and ethnic groups, according to 2007 figures from the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, a federal prevention program begun in 1997. “That alarming fact has finally gotten the attention of local community members,” says Smith. “They know they must start taking action because diabetes is a very preventable disease, and you prevent it by healthy eating.”
The loss of land and water with the creation of reservations more than a century ago disrupted the traditional Native American methods of gathering foods. Assimilation, particularly after World War II, put American Indians in contact with the larger society, putting more fat and sugar in their diets and taking starch and fiber out.
By 1982, only 7,000 Indian farmers were left in the United States, compared with more than 48,000 in 1920. Prompted by shocking heart disease and diabetes, however, Native Americans, in a trend traced to the 1990s, are trying to return to their traditional healthy diets.
Eating with a Purpose
There’s plenty to aspire to—Native Americans are among the original practitioners of holistic health. Traditionally, their diet and lifestyle were not only tied to all things environmental and natural but were deeply enmeshed with spirituality. That’s one reason why nothing these hunters and gatherers brought back for their sustenance went to waste; everything had a purpose.
Young Native Americans are revisiting the spiritual practices of their elders, Smith says, and are finding health benefits in the process. “The younger generations are getting more involved with so much information about nutrition being a key factor in diabetes and everything else that’s wrong with us,” Smith says. “They’re doing sweats and fasting; these are all spiritual things, but they’re so intertwined with nutrition and health it’s hard to separate them.”
Celebration of Abundance
The resurging interest in Native American ways of eating is evident in the number of cookbooks available on the subject, such as American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest by Carolyn Niethammer (University of Nebraska Press). One of the food sources she covers is the sunflower: “According to a Hopi legend, when the sunflowers are numerous, it is a sign that there will be an abundant harvest,” Niethammer says. The seeds were used in gravy, bread and the following pudding:
1 cup corn kernels (from green, or very young, cobs)
1 cup finely ground raw or roasted sunflower seeds
1 cup finely chopped summer squash
2 cups water
1 tsp salt
Grind the corn kernels, retaining the juice. Combine with sunflower meal and squash in a saucepan; add water and salt. Cover pot tightly and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally. If necessary, remove cover towards end of cooking period so mixture can thicken. Good warm or cold.
The “sweats” that Smith refers to are sweat lodges. Porter Shimer, author of Healing Secrets of the Native Americans (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers) calls these sweat lodges Native American spas. Made of branches or planks covered with bark or animal skin, or dug into a hill, sweat lodges employ sweet plants like cedar or sage placed on heated rocks. The sweats symbolize rebirth, Shimer says, and cleanse mind and body. Sweating removes toxins, and water poured on hot rocks helps offset stress and fatigue, he adds. Muscle and joint pain are also known to evaporate in heat.
Sophisticated practices such as sweat lodges bear out a highly developed—and, Shimer argues, unappreciated—system of powerful remedies abetted by ceremony, prayer and the visualization of good health. High diabetes rates fly in the face of these insightful uses of the land’s bounty.
Modern Ills, Traditional Answers
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and the Pima Indians who live around the Gila River of Arizona have cooperated for decades on identifying why the Pima have been so afflicted by obesity and diabetes. One theory centers around the so-called thrifty gene, believed to be responsible for helping Indians who hunted, fished and farmed for food adapt to periods of famine. The gene may have caused people who have it to endure more profound obesity with the adoption of a Western lifestyle. This is supported by an NIDDK study of Pimas in Mexico, where they follow a more traditional diet. Only a few Mexican Pimas had diabetes, and they were generally not overweight.
Returning to the traditional diet is no simple feat, since many of the old-time plants are difficult to come by. Native Seeds/Search, a seed bank, distributes such seeds and teaches new generations how to plant and harvest them. The organization was launched a quarter century ago when its founders went from house to house and collected seed varieties from Native farmers and gardeners.
Among the seeds are varieties of corn, beans and squash—the “three sisters” that comprise the core of the traditional Native American diet. These plants became popular because the seeds are easy to transport, explains Alex Sando, outreach coordinator at Native Seeds/Search, in Tucson, Arizona. “The ancient Pueblos moved to different places and brought corn, squash seed and beans with them,” Sando says. “It was a very strong part of the livelihood to raise those particular items. Beans can adapt to dry weather.”
Further, many Native Americans became adept at dry farming or raising the crops where there was very little water, such as along ridges and mesas, Sando says. Of course, foods such as corn had their spiritual side, as well. The person holding corn used in a baby-naming ceremony, for instance, gestures in four directions so the baby could have a strong healthy life. “It signifies that there is life in all directions,” Sando says.
Yellow corn contains powerful phytonutrients. Beta-cryptoxanthin, an orange-red carotenoid, may benefit the lungs, says George Mateljan, author of The World’s Healthiest Foods (GMF Publishing). Folate, a B vitamin, promotes heart health, and two other Bs, pantothenic acid and thiamin, promote energy production, Mateljan adds. Bone-building phosphorous and manganese are also found in yellow corn.
The relationship of corns, beans and squash is “symbiotic,” says Richard Hetzler, executive chef at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, the Zagat-rated restaurant of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. “Those three ingredients together sustained life for Native Americans,” he observes. “It even went into the growing of the plants, where the stalk of the corn was used for the beans to grow up. The leaves of the squash would shade the ground and keep the moisture up.
There’s even science about the nitrogen released by the corn that helps to fertilize the beans.”
Native Seeds/Search distributes cholla, tepary beans and chia seeds, as well as sage teas. Amaranth, a food source the group distributes, is also a natural dye whose red-pinkish color the Hopi apply to their Piki bread, explains Sando.
Hetzler and his restaurant buy mesquite flour from the Seri Indians in central Arizona for use in pancakes, muffins, breads and cookies, as well as mesquite-crusted salmon and chicken. Mesquite flour is gluten-free, Heztler says, and loaded with protein, soluble fiber and complex carbohydrates.
It has a fruity, nutty flavor. Mesquite is also used medicinally and in ceremony.
As for meat, Heztler says the ethos of Native American food does not abuse fat like a modern Western diet. Buffalo is leaner than beef, he says, adding that the museum restaurant buys its meat from the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, a group of 57 native tribes. Its buffalo graze on native herbs.
“When you look at the buffalo I buy, the fat is yellow, not the white fat we normally see in beef, and that’s from the plants they’re eating,” Hetzler says. Of Native American fare in general, he adds, “It’s earth-friendly, hearty sustainable food from the land that was used to sustain life.”
Native Americans are not just trying to embrace a healthier lifestyle through diet but also through exercise, says Barbara Howard PhD, senior scientist at MedStar Research Institute in Washington, DC and chair of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism with the American Heart Association. Howard, who has been studying American Indian health for more than 30 years, says there are nuances in the way different tribes approach exercise based on cultural differences. The Plains Indians employ dance, while Southwestern Indians play more ball games that adhere to tribal practice.
“They teach their people to have a healthier lifestyle but may use different traditional ways to do this,” she says. “They want to maintain their traditions.”