Ancestral Eating (& decolonizing our food)

Ancestral eating croppedA couple hundred years after my ancestors destroyed the food systems of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas we’ve started our very own ancestral food movement.

And most Indigenous people, after generations of marginalization, colonization and cultural (as well as literal) genocide aren’t in a position to afford to eat ancestrally, unless they managed to maintain their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices.

I wrote about this once already in My Ancestors came from Candy-land.

But I need to write about it again.

Please! When you come, bring Moose, Venison, Beaver, Bear or Salmon~

A tour of Southwestern Canada last summer by Unist’ot’en Hereditary Chiefs to gather support for the Unist’ot’en’s stand against the construction of fossil fuel pipelines through Northern British Columbia included an event in Victoria, where I live.

Venison pot roast, present & future 2
Venison pot roast, present & future~

Event organizers made an urgent request on behalf of the Unist’ot’en delegation: “Our guests eat a meat and fish rich diet. If you are in any position to bring any wild game – moose, venison, beaver, bear or salmon, any of these are most appreciated.”

Those of us who eat ancestrally can appreciate the challenge of finding food while traveling. Wanting to be gracious guests while trying to find anything (anything?) that resembles real food in faraway lands.

But most Indigenous communities no longer eat a meat and fish rich diet.

Indigenous people were forcibly disconnected from their food gathering lands and practices, and this has been identified as a primary cause of significant health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in North America.

 Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities reminds us of the history of the intentional disruption and colonization of Indigenous food:

Nettles 2
Nettles

“As Native communities were removed to reservations and their original food systems were strained, new food sources had to be found. In many communities, the lack of foods was replaced by rations provided by the federal government. In most cases, those rations were made up of totally unfamiliar foods that not only had no cultural context to the people, but were also damaging to the physiology of the peoples themselves. These rations were mentioned in historical accounts from the period and in many cases within treaties entered into between these Native communities and the new country to be known as the United States. In most cases, government rationed foods were of substantially lower nutritional value (flour, lard, and other products not normally within the historic diet of Native peoples) or in other cases, the foods were altogether rancid or rotten when received.”

In an early ancestral research paper Origins and evolution of the Western diet published in 2005, Loren Cordain and co-authors identified seven nutritional differences between ancestral (Hunter-gatherer) and colonized (Agricultural-industrial) diets, including:

  1. Glycemic load;
  2. Fatty acid composition;
  3. Macronutrient composition;
  4. Micronutrient density;
  5. Acid-base balance;
  6. Sodium-potassium ratio: and
  7. Fiber content.

Cordain & co were some of the first researchers to point out that in Eurowestern cultures, “diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality. These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and typically afflict 50–65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people”.

Disease incidence is only one way to measure health, of course. Health, for individuals and communities, is much more than the absence of disease.

Janie Hipp, Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law explains, “When we were strong in our foods on this continent, we were stronger people – we were healthier. And for Indigenous peoples it all starts with the food. When Indian Country lost its ability to feed itself, through whatever means, we lost that part of ourselves that supports our ability to thrive. It is only by regaining our foods will we be able to restore our health.”

Salmon Berries
Salmon Berries

Feeding Ourselves tells us that “there was no word for diabetes in traditional Native languages when the Europeans arrived on this continent. In 1933, a physician for the Indian Health Service reported just one case in the entire state of Arizona. Researchers have also stated that in 1940 the occurrence of diabetes among Native Americans was almost unknown. Diabetes began appearing in 1950, until during the 1960s, it became a common condition. The incidence of diabetes exploded in the 1970s, becoming an epidemic. Beginning in the 1990s and through present day, nearly every Native American is involved either personally with diabetes, or with family and friends with diabetes. It has been called the new smallpox.”

Decolonizing our Food

Let’s consider the context of ancestral eating.

Not as a phenomenon that occurred through the revelations of white people with the birth of the 21st century, but as woven into the complex and problematic history of humankind.

Dried kelp
Kelp

A history that is deeply connected to our relationships with each other.

To privilege and power.

And colonization.

A history that is not just historical. But very much a part of our present. And our future.

My call to action for those of us who are committed to the ancestral food revolution is this: Let’s prioritize the decolonization of our food supply and restore access to healthy food for everyone.

4 thoughts on “Ancestral Eating (& decolonizing our food)

  1. Ii want to get on a roof top and read this article to whoever will listen. Excellent – is a meagre complement. Many thanks, Petra for keeping us on the edge of information and awareness.

  2. Petra – I love this post. I am completely on board with your assertion that ancestral eating allows us deeper connection – both with nature and with our relationships. It’s one of the reasons I embrace it.

    You have added a socio-political twist that is thought provoking. We have similar issues here in Australia.http://healthbulletin.org.au/articles/food-security-and-traditional-foods-in-remote-aboriginal-communities-a-review-of-the-literature/

    1. Thank you, for this resource, Joanna. According to “the first observations of researchers, scientists and physicians working in small Aboriginal communities in the early to mid-twentieth century… Aboriginal people… consuming traditional diets were in ‘superb health’. Early reports by physicians claimed, those consuming market food had poor health. By the 1950s concern about the nutritional health of Aboriginal people living on stations prompted the Australian Commonwealth 1951 dietary survey. Smith and Smith (1999), illustrate that by the 1970s Aboriginal health was deteriorating further. So critical was Aboriginal health, that it gained attention from national and international critics…”

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