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Despite all the publicity and discussions about diets, many Indigenous people (like many other Americans) have not been particularly interested in improving their diets and activity levels. Even thoughwe are pelted with information that tells us about the dangers of processed, salty, and fatty foods, many Americans continue to eat badly even though they are becoming ill from their unhealthy lifestyles. Sadly, it usually is not until a person is diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or lung cancer that he or she begins to consider what they are eating, drinking, and smoking, and how much they sit around.
There is hope. By educating ourselves about nutrition and making informed decisions, most health problems can be prevented. As Time Magazine, October 20, 2003, reports: "90% of diabetes and 80% of heart disease cases can be directly attributed to unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits." Many of us are paying attention.
Not all Indigenous people fall prey to the seductive ads of McDonald's playgrounds that lure children-and therefore their parents-into the store. Many of us ignore the television ads showing how cool one can look while eating chocolate shaped like potato chips or the ads telling us that we too can ride skateboards like maniacs while drinking sugar and caffeine-laden soft drinks. We immediately recycle the newspaper coupons for macaroni and cheese and rich desserts. We drive past Long John Silver's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Del Taco without a glance-even if our children whine and demand that we stop. We exercise daily or as close to it as we can get. If we do falter in our quest to eat healthy, unprocessed foods, it is in small amounts and not very often.
Right now, Indigenous people are planting, cultivating, and preserving foods. Many Natives are involved with the Native Seeds/SEARCH project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and preserving seeds used for food, dyes, and fiber. The Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University (led by Gary Paul Nabhan, noted environmentalist-conservationist who started the Ironwood Alliance and initiated the Traditional Native American Farmers' Association) is involved in a number of projects and collaborative initiatives that focus on increasing food security and agricultural sustainability on the Colorado Plateau. In Chinle, Navajo youth who are members of the Damon-Bahe Boxing Club box at a gym built by the Cal Bahe family in an effort to help young people avoid drinking, smoking, and gangs and to gain self-respect. The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakima tribes are attempting to rebuild salmon, lamprey, and sturgeon populations above Bonneville Dam through the Columbia River Anadromous Fish Restoration Plan. The Nez Perce are restoring camas bulbs. Through the Inter-Tribal Basin Cooperative, dozens of tribes have purchased and raised thousands of bison. Winona LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project with healthy food initiatives such as Native Harvest and Mino-Miijim. Dream of Wild Health, in Farmington, Minnesota, is a garden cultivated with recovered seeds traditionally used by Native Americans in order to educate and inspire Natives about nutrition, pollination, and traditional gardening methods. The Penobscot Indian Nation, along with the State of Maine and the U.S. Department of the Interior are attempting to restore Native sea-run fish (Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, shad, bass, herring, etc). Mike and Karen Guilfoyle, a Montana couple, gather mushrooms, can vegetables, and cultivate their gardens in Idaho and Montana. Waziyatawin Angela Wilson retains her grandmother's corn and cooks exceptional wild rice that is harvested by her tribe in Minnesota. The list of examples of Indigenous people across the Americas continuing to cultivate traditional, unprocessed foods, attempting to restore the ones that have fallen from use or have disappeared, and who take small steps to eat and exercise as their ancestors did, is extensive.
Although a Cherokee friend joked about this project that, "As an Indian I do my duty and eat as much chocolate as I can" (because cacao is indigenous to the New World), this is not exactly the kind of helpful advice that we should emulate. Nevertheless, all this productive activity begs the question: If so many people are trying to eat traditionally, then how is it that, according to the Native American Diabetes Initiative (at http://www.nativeheritage.net/), in some tribes, Type II diabetes has stricken half the tribal members? Why are so many Natives obese and suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure, and other serious health problems directly related to an unhealthy lifestyle? How can we become healthy and take back our pride and self-esteem? This book attempts to answer those questions.
Chapter 1, "The State of Indigenous Health," is a discussion of the distressing problems we have created for ourselves by eating an abundance of fat, salt, grease, and sugar (and too much of everything else bad for us) and traces what happened after Natives adopted processed foods. While initial contact benefited many Natives (notably from the addition of cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables), it did not take long before we began to overeat and to prepare food with too much grease, salt, and sugar. Wheat may have added a new form of bread to the table, but many Natives overindulge in that "empty" food, fried bread, and others suffer from celiac disease, a serious problem stemming from the inability to digest gluten or wheat. Until Europeans brought cattle and goats from the Old World, Natives did not drink milk. Many Natives are lactose intolerant (unable to process milk products) and yet they are falsely told by the dairy industry that the only way to acquire calcium is to ingest milk products. And as we have seen from statistics about diabetes, they eat too much sugar.
Chapters 2 and 3, "Traditional Diets" and "Traditional Activity," are brief overviews of traditional diets and activities, including what some tribes ate, how they prepared their food, and how their lives revolved around hunting, gathering, cultivating, and preserving. Chapter 4, "How Did We Arrive at This Unhealthy Situation?" explores evidence that shows us our ancestors were physically strong, and while some did suffer from diseases, these diseases were not self-induced, that is, they did not die from gluttony, arteriosclerosis, or other problems associated with overindulgence. This chapter also discusses the findings of Weston A. Price, a dentist who traveled the world in the 1930s studying cultures that ate no processed foods, and remained physically fit and cavity-free until the "nonprimitive" diet of the outside world worsened their health. The chapter then traces what happened through the centuries to make Natives so sick and explores the main factors-both realities and excuses-that keep Natives from regaining their health.
Chapter 5, "What Are We Ingesting?" serves as a wake-up call for those who have not paid attention to their diets. Using a sample diet chart as an example, readers can track their own diets for one week in order to assess how many nutrients they consume and to understand what they are lacking. Chapter 6, "How Many Calories Do We Need?" allows readers to calculate how many calories they actually must have to function in comparison to how many they are taking in. In order to lose weight, we must burn more calories than we take in. In order to maintain weight, the amount of calories we take in and burn up must be the same. What we must keep in mind, however, is that all the food we eat must be nutritious, not just "low calorie."
Chapter 7, "Changing What We Eat," offers suggestions for changing our diets so that we consume nutritious foods only in the amounts we need. All the suggestions revolve around this ideology: Unprocessed foods, that is, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products, provide the foundation for a healthy body. It may not be possible to give up all the tasty, processed foods that surround us, but if we primarily eat vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich foods, then a few processed "treats" every now and then will not do as much damage as if we consume fatty, sweet, and salty foods and drinks every day.
Chapter 8, "Recovering Our Fitness," offers ideas for changing a sedentary lifestyle, ranging from a simple walking program to lifting weights to physical programs such as hiking and exploring the natural world around us while we exercise. Chapter 9, "Planting Gardens," offers step-by-step instructions for planting either large gardens in our yards or as part of a neighborhood project; and for those who have limited or poor land to garden, there are also suggestions for container gardens.
Chapter 10, "Become a Fitness Activist," is a call for action so that our families, communities, and tribes can stay healthy and fit. There are many things we consumers can do to ensure that we get quality foods, from protesting misleading and deceptive ads to campaigning for nutrition education in our schools. We can demand nutritious meals for our children who eat at school cafeterias, educate others about diet and exercise, and become environmental activists to make certain our water, air, and soil are clean and free of pollutants. We can also become aggressive in our efforts to eat right and to exercise; in so doing, we become role models for others. None of these suggestions is bizarre or difficult. They are common-sense ideas that are intended to inspire readers to consider new ways of doing things. A complete return to hunting, gathering, and cultivating in the same ways our ancestors did is not usually practical, but all of us can manage to do some of it. Cooking just one traditional dish regularly, sowing a garden, and beginning an exercise program are greatly empowering.
The second part of this book, "Indigenous Recipes," is a compilation of dishes from my family and from many of my colleagues that initially featured only New World foods; but I also realized that some of my favorites (namely garlic, beets, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, okra, carrots, and sweet peas) are Old World foods. In addition, some of my taste require these European, Asian, and African spices and foods in modern recipes, so I have included recipes that feature Old World foods and spices, but these ingredients are optional and are marked with an asterisk (*). The "cookbook" section of this book is brief, mainly because there already are countless cookbooks on the shelves, dealing with specific places (Italian, Mediterranean, Santa Fe, Chinese), specific types of foods (breads, salads, garlic, vegetables, meats), and types of cooking (barbecue, electric slow cooker, bread maker, wok). Readers have literally thousands of books, Web sites, and magazine articles from which to choose. The recipes included here are "basic," that is, they are simple and can be enhanced according to readers' tastes. With so many fruits, vegetables, and meats to chose from, the possibilities for delicious and nutritious meals are almost endless. Beware of Web surfing for "traditional Native foods," however, because there are numerous Web sites with hundreds of recipes that feature butter, lard, sugar, and processed foods-the very ingredients we should avoid.
All tribes face a similar dilemma: Once our people were strong and physically healthy. Now, we are facing a health crisis of epidemic proportions. The ailments discussed here should be enough incentive to convince Natives to reconsider a traditional diet, or at least to incorporate parts of a traditional lifestyle into their current, unhealthy one. If we have knowledge about how we got into this situation, and we want to improve ourselves, then what shall we do about it? There are a few things to keep in mind:
Fresh, unprocessed foods are healthier than fried, processed ones. Homegrown foods can help develop pride and healthy bodies. Natives gathered, hunted, and cultivated foods that kept them healthy. Foods eaten at fast-food joints are the opposite. Food we prepare in our kitchens give us control over what we and our families eat. When we buy food at fast-food restaurants, we are giving others control over what we consume. Preparing food in our kitchens gives us pleasure and peace of mind. It can be relaxing and gives us time to think. Cultivating and preparing our foods slows us down and puts us in a calm state. We can escape from the stress of our jobs and fast-paced lives. Read Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed (New York: Harper Collins, 2004) for suggestions on how to escape the general rush of today's society and how to slow down and savor the time you have allotted to you. Pulling weeds, fertilizing, picking fruits and vegetables, peeling potatoes, shucking and grinding corn, and making meals are among the best ways to relax and think. And, when you are in the kitchen preparing meals, people tend not to bother you. A little bit of exercise, every day, adds up in the long run. No one can force you to eat unhealthily, to smoke, or to be sedentary. Educate yourself about nutrition and fitness and you can change your life.
Working on one's diet and activity level is only part of what we should be doing. We also need to investigate what our tribes ate, how they cultivated crops, what and how they hunted and fished, and how they prepared foods and saved seeds for the future. How can we participate in the preservation of agricultural techniques? What are our tribes' ceremonies associated with food? What are the names of our foods and animals in our tribes' languages?
Making choices about the foods we eat can be greatly empowering, not only for our bodies but also for our minds. The traumatic effects of colonization continue to be devastating, wreaking havoc on our emotions and thoughts. Feelings of insecurity, identity confusion, anger, frustration, and despair are common among Natives. Looking to alcohol and drugs, or physically abusing others, are not rational ways to find relief. We must deal with our emotional and psychological issues holistically. We must engage our elders. We must recover our traditional indigenous knowledge to discover how our ancestors solved their problems. We must care for our families and communities so that we become part of the circle of people who support each other in times of grief and pain. We must become educated about our tribes' rich histories and cultures to develop pride in ourselves. We must become politically active and pressure our tribal councils to make certain that they deal fairly and impartially with the myriad issues that tribal people face (educational systems; policy and laws, including juvenile justice; treaty rights; economic development; environmental protection and management; health care; housing maintenance; language programs, and so on).
Excerpted from Recovering Our Ancestor's Gardens by Devon Abbott Mihesuah Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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