Challenge: One-Week Indigenous Foods Diet

Martin Reinhardt (Center for Native American Studies, pictured) is leading a diverse group of volunteers on a one-year journey eating foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region. He wanted to see if it was feasible to closely replicate his Native American ancestors’ way of life prior to colonization, but in a contemporary context. Participants are more than halfway through the Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP). Recognizing that others might be curious to try it, but unable to commit for an extended period, Reinhardt invites the general public to follow the list of DDP-eligible foods for one week, Nov. 2-9. The mini challenge will culminate on the final day with traditional fare offered at the 12th annual First Nations Food Taster at the Jacobetti Center.

“There is a deep historical interconnectedness, or spiritual kinship, between indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands that makes the act of eating indigenous plants and animals much more personal,” said Reinhardt, who is an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “We had to decide how we were going to execute this and how we would find our foods.”


The geographic parameters were set—states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes—and a timeline of 1600 established to reflect when colonization began to occur. Reinhardt developed three criteria for foods eligible for the diet: those defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as native to the region, such as whitetail deer and morel mushrooms; non-native foods introduced by indigenous people prior to 1600, including corn, beans and squash (“the three sisters”); and plants and animals that have since derived from those that were here in a pre-colonial context, such as domesticated turkeys bred over the years to have white feathers and plump thighs and breasts.


“From there, we limited ourselves to a portion of the foods available for human consumption that can be grown, foraged, hunted, fished or purchased,” said Reinhardt. “Genetically modified organisms were excluded.”


Reinhardt recruited about 25 adult volunteers representing a mix of ages, gender, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. They agreed to follow a diet consisting of 25-100 percent indigenous foods. Several opted for the lower end of the spectrum because they thought it would be too life-altering to venture higher. Others settled in the 50-75 percent range. But a few, including Reinhardt and Treasa Sowa of Munising, embraced the plan 100 percent.


“There are social issues, like having to refrain from eating at functions or bringing my own food places,” Sowa said. “But that hasn’t affected my determination. I’ve lost 23 pounds and there’s a general sense of well-being that’s hard to describe.”

A few participants dropped out. Those who remain log their eating and complementary exercise regimens and share reflections via video, photos, audio and written journals. They have quarterly checkups to monitor key health indicators. They also meet periodically for cooking demonstrations and potlucks to discuss their experiences. The goal was to determine not only whether the diet improves health, but also what kind of social and legal/political barriers are encountered. For more information on the project, visit DDP. The master food list is available by following the link to the DDP group site.  For questions about the mini challenge, contact Reinhardt at


Presentations on the DDP will be held during Native American Heritage Month in November. A full schedule of events, including the First Nations Food Taster, is available here.



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Updated: October 23, 2012

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