Volunteers Follow Pre-Colonial Diet of Native Americans
MARQUETTE, Mich.—In an effort to closely replicate the Native American way of life prior to colonization, a diverse group of volunteers has committed one year to eating foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region and following a complementary exercise regimen. They are more than halfway through the Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP) at Northern Michigan University.
Martin Reinhardt, director of the project, said the idea was sparked two years ago by the First Nations Food Taster, an event held annually as part of Native American Heritage Month at NMU.
“I had participated in the food taster several times and it had always been in the back of mind how closely related the food we serve at these events is to the foods our ancestors would have eaten in a pre-colonial context,” said Reinhardt, who is an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “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. We had to decide how we were going to execute this and how we would find our foods.”
Discussions ensued over the following months at the NMU Center for Native American Studies and blossomed into the DDP. The geographic parameters were set—states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes—and a timeline of the early 1600s 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 plumper thighs and breasts. Genetically modified organisms were excluded.
NMU students helped to develop a master list of eligible foods that is posted online, along with preparation tips and recipes to maximize variety.
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, Mich., 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 exercise and share reflections via video, photos, audio and written journals. They have quarterly checkups to monitor key health indicators. The group also meets 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.
The year-long study ends on March 24, 2013. A final report, DDP recipe book and documentary will follow. Reinhardt obtained funding for the project from an NMU faculty research grant, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Cedar Tree Institute. For more information, visit http://decolonizingdietproject.blogspot.com/. The master food list is available by following the link to the DDP group site. Reinhardt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prepared by Kristi Evans.