When it comes to diabetes, Native Americans are clearly at greater risk compared to non-Natives. The incidence and prevalence of diabetes within the Native community have increased dramatically as traditional lifestyles have been abandoned in favor of westernization, with accompanying increases in body weight and diminished physical activity. Consider these sobering statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service:
2.2 times higher – likelihood of Native Americans to have diabetes compared to non-Hispanic whites.
68% – percent increase in diabetes from 1994 to 2004 in Native American youth aged 15-19 years.
95% – percent of Native Americans with diabetes who have type 2 diabetes.
30% – estimated percent of Native Americans who have pre-diabetes.*
The extent of diabetes in Native communities today demands public health programs that incorporate specific cultural adaptations for individual tribes. Enter the Tulalip Health Clinic’s Diabetes Program and its ‘grow your own fruits, vegetables & edible flowers’ campaign.
In the spring of 2013, Veronica “Roni” Leahy, Diabetes Program Coordinator, embarked on a mission to bring practical application of diabetes prevention into the everyday lives of Tulalip tribal members by creating a Tulalip Bay wellness garden and trail.
“Our goal for this garden is diabetes prevention,” explains Leahy. “One of the ways you fight diabetes is good nutrition and exercise. We have a vegetable garden which supports good nutrition and a wellness trail for our exercise. It’s practical application. We offer natural foods you can grow. We have berries, like gooseberries, huckleberries and raspberries. We have fruits, like Oregon grape, apples and pears. Plus, we are growing edible flowers as well.
“Our plan here is to have as much community involvement as possible in creating this space. We have elders who have been a huge part of this project from the very beginning. We’ll continue to focus on the elders and community as we further develop this area. That’s why we call it ‘grow your own fruits and vegetables.’”
Volunteer elders work hard almost every day in creating new additions to the health clinic gardens. Tulalip elder Sandy Swanson is one of those dedicated volunteers.
“I’m out here every day because I enjoy gardening. I worked with Roni on this project since it first started at Hibulb Cultural Center,” says Swanson. “I worked there in the greenhouse and garden beds for two or three years. So when we started down here, I thought this would be good because it’s closer to my home and work at the Health Clinic. I was a nurse for 50 years and just retired last year. I’m 75 now so I putter around here and water and plant and help keep this area clean. I come down and help plant the peas and apple trees.
“This garden is for the people so anyone can come help out and be a part of this. People come and work with us on these gardens, we’d like to have more people, but many work so we understand. The main theme is to be able to teach about healthy home-grown fruits and vegetables where they are safe to eat, store stuff is so processed and shined up with chemicals. You have to wash all your fruits and vegetables from the stores these days.”The Tulalip Health Clinic’s Diabetes Program is determined to teach the tribal membership how to live a healthy lifestyle that minimizes the risk of diabetes and welcomes any and all community volunteers to become a part of the wellness garden. The next ‘grow your own fruits and vegetables’ event with be on Friday, May 29 from 9:00a.m. – 3:00p.m. at the Tulalip Bay wellness garden and trail, located on the west side ofthe Tulalip Health Clinic.
For more information about the Diabetes Program, the wellness garden, or opportunities for volunteerism please contact Roni Leahy at email@example.com or 360-716-5642.
If you listen closely, you can hear Dan Cornelius singing his favorite Willie Nelson theme song—“I’m on the road again…”—as his Mobile Farmers Market vehicle heads down the highway.
Cornelius, of Wisconsin’s Oneida Nation, is general manager of a three-month-long, 10,000-mile foodie road show designed to showcase Native American foods in conjunction with a reconnection of tribal trade routes. “A lot of native communities are remote, literally food deserts, and don’t have good access to healthy traditional fresh foods. Part of our mission is to access food resources, take those great products and distribute them as part of a tribal trade reintroduction,” he says.
“There’s a lot of product that is traditionally grown, harvested and processed—lots of time and labor that goes into that—but the traditional foods aren’t made available to the general public as a sustainable economic resource.”
The interest is there, but the connection still needs to be made. “It’s about health issues, maintaining our traditions, and turning the effort into a form of economic development by selling excess product for profit.”
The “Reconnecting the Tribal Trade Routes Roadtrip” is an effort to bring attention to the unique Native food products and artwork from across the country. The Mobile Farmers Market van started the roadtrip in mid-December when it picked up wild rice, maple syrup, and other products in northern Minnesota. The roadtrip officially kicked off in early January, making the drive from Wisconsin to Louisiana before heading to Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and the West Coast. The trip then visited Montana and the Dakotas en route to concluding during March back in Minnesota. (Intertribal Agriculture Council)
The Mobile Farmers Market traveled across the country earlier this year as part of the Intertribal Agriculture Council‘s efforts to improve Indian agriculture by promoting Indian use of Indian resources. “Prior to our founding in 1987, American Indian agriculture was basically unheard of outside reservation boundaries,” notes the group’s web page.
”The Mobile Farmers Market utilized a large capacity fuel-efficient cargo van to transport a number of products across a region, all the while providing support to start farmers markets in interested tribal communities,” says Market Manager Bruce Savage. The vans’ insulated interior lining ensured correct temperature control, and a chest freezer allowed for transport of frozen goods.
“For a variety of reasons, traditional native products are frequently difficult to obtain, and the Mobile Farmers Market hoped to change that by making things more accessible to tribal communities,” says Cornelius. In the Pacific Northwest, canned and smoked salmon were frequently obtainable items while the Southwest offered up cactus buds and syrup. The Great Plains provided a prairie-grown protein-packed wild turnip. In the Great Lakes region it was sumac berries. “Soak them in water, add honey or syrup, and you get a tea-like lemonade that you won’t find commercially,” Cornelius says.
Coyote Valley Tribe’s community and Head Start garden and greenhouse (Intertribal Agriculture Council)
Success of the project was contingent on cultivating supportive relationships with local partners and that part of the plan came together nicely, very reminiscent of the early trade and barter days.
“Trade routes once connected regional tribes across the continent where different local areas produced unique resources,” says Cornelius. “As an example, the Objiwe exchanged meat and fish for corn from the Huadenosaunee in the Northeast. And, of course, the Three Sisters combination of corn/beans/squash gradually moved from South and Central America throughout all of the North American Continent. “
The Reconnecting the Tribal Trade Routes Roadtrip got underway in December 2013 by first picking up wild rice, maple syrup, and other products in Minnesota before heading off to Wisconsin, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and the West Coast and finally heading home to Minnesota earlier this year via Montana and the Dakotas.
The Mobile Farmers Market’s main focus is food, but it also supports Native artisan by carrying a small selection of jewelry, crafts, and artwork. Pictured here: inlaid earrings from Santa Domingo Pueblo. (nativefoodnetwork.com)
As Cornelius and crew bought and sold the wares of North America’s indigenous communities, the grocery list grew to include tepary beans from the Tohono O’odham people to chocolate produced by the Chickasaw Nation.
The mobile van discovered a gold mine at Ramona Farms in Sacaton, Arizona, on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Ramona and Terry Button have been growing crops for small ethnic grocers on the reservation for over 40 years and still have plenty to share with the outside world, everything from Southwestern staples like garbanzo and Anasazi beans to white Sonoran and Pima club wheat as well as alfalfa and cotton.
“Part of our mission was to build an awareness and an excitement of all the things available ‘out there’ and we succeeded,” Cornelius says. “One of the great things about our initial effort (discussions are currently underway to find funding for more vans and an increased regional visability) was the ground level opportunity to talk with community growers face-to-face discussing products, challenges, and opportunities to introduce traditional items to a larger world.”
The Mobile Farmers Market in Southern Oregon (Intertribal Agriculture Council)
(Seattle—July 23, 2014) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it is awarding over $756,000 to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community to research coastal climate impacts to traditional foods, cultural sites and tribal community health and well-being. The combination of sea level rise, wave impacts, and shoreline development will change coastal ecosystems that support Swinomish first foods and place-based relationships, which in turn impacts community health and well-being.
The funds will be used to: · Develop a model showing projected coastal erosion due to sea-level rise, storm surge, and wave energy through Year 2100 on the shores of the Swinomish Reservation · Map the vulnerability of Swinomish coastal ecosystem habitats of first foods and culturally significant sites · Support the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative · Create educational and outreach tools for Swinomish community members and Coast Salish communities · Assess research results and develop adaptive strategies EPA funds research focused on tribal communities through the Science to Achieve Results program. Because many tribes rely on natural resources, it is essential for tribal-focused research to identify possible environmental health risks and the most efficient methods of avoiding or addressing these risks.
We already knew that the tar-sands operations have been dousing northern Alberta with mercury and other forms of pollution. Now university scientists have collaborated with the First Nations to test the pollution levels in hunted animals found downstream from the tar-sands sites. Here are some lowlights from their findings, which were included in a report published on Monday:
Arsenic levels were high enough in in muskrat and moose muscle; duck, moose, and muskrat livers; and moose and duck kidneys to be of concern for young children. Cadmium levels were again elevated in moose kidney and liver samples but also those of beaver and ducks … Mercury levels were also high for duck muscle, kidneys, and livers as well as moose and muskrat kidneys, especially for children. …
Total levels of PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and levels of carcinogenic and alkylated PAHs were very high relative to other food studies conducted around the world.
The First Nations members aren’t shocked to hear this. Some have already started avoiding their traditional foods because of worries about contamination, they told researchers. More from the report:
Participants were concerned about declines in the quality of [traditional] foods, in the greatest part because of environmental pollutants originating from the Oil Sands. It was notable how many participants no longer consumed locally caught fish, because of government-issued consumption advisories and associated human health concerns. Muskrat consumption had also declined precipitously, along with muskrat populations, a decline that was attributed to changes in hydrology and contaminant levels associated with the WAC Bennett Dam and the Oil Sands. The only effective alternatives to traditional foods are store-bought foods. …
All participants were worried about ongoing declines in the health and wellbeing of their community. They generally viewed themselves as less healthy than their parents, who rarely got sick. Neurological illnesses (e.g. sleeping disorders, migraines, and stress) were most common followed, in descending order of frequency, by respiratory illnesses (e.g. allergies, asthma) as well as circulatory (e.g. hypertension, coronary) and gastrointestinal (e.g. gallbladder, ulcers) illnesses. Yet, everyone was most concerned about the current and escalating cancer crisis.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – Facing a high prevalence of diabetes, many American Indian tribes are returning to their roots with community and home gardens, cooking classes that incorporate traditional foods, and running programs to encourage healthy lifestyles.
The latest effort on the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest reservation, is to use the tax system to spur people to ditch junk food.
A proposed 2 percent sales tax on chips, cookies and sodas failed Tuesday in a Tribal Council vote. But the measure still has widespread support, and advocates plan to revive it, with the hope of making the tribe one of the first governments to enact a junk-food tax.
Elected officials across the U.S. have taken aim at sugary drinks with proposed bans, size limits, tax hikes and warning labels, though their efforts have not gained widespread traction. In Mexico, lawmakers approved a junk food tax and a tax on soft drinks last year as part of that government’s campaign to fight obesity.
Navajo President Ben Shelly earlier this year vetoed measures to establish a junk-food tax and eliminate the tax on fresh fruit and vegetables. At Tuesday’s meeting, tribal lawmakers overturned the veto on the tax cut, but a vote to secure the junk-food tax fell short. Lawmakers voted 13-7 in favor of it, but the tax needed 16 votes to pass.
The Dine Community Advocacy Alliance, which led the effort, said it plans to revise the proposal and bring it before lawmakers again during the summer legislative session.
“We’re going to keep moving on it,’’ group member Gloria Begay said. “It’s not so much the tax money – it’s the message. The message being, ‘Let’s look at our health and make healthier choices.’ We have to go out and do more education awareness.’’
Shelly said he supports the proposal’s intent but questioned how the higher tax on snacks high in fat, sugar and salt would be enacted and regulated. Supporters say the tax is another tool in their fight for the health of the people.
“If we can encourage our people to make healthier choices and work on the prevention side, we increase the life span of our children, we improve their quality of life,’’ said professional golfer Notah Begay III, who is among supporters.
American Indians and Alaska Natives as a whole have the highest age-adjusted prevalence of diabetes among U.S. racial and ethnic groups, according to the American Diabetes Association. They are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to have the disease that was the fourth leading cause of death in the Navajo area from 2003 to 2005, according to the Indian Health Service.
Native children ages 10 to 19 are nine times as likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, the IHS said.
The proposed Navajo Nation tax wouldn’t have added significantly to the price of junk food, but buying food on the reservation presents obstacles that don’t exist in most of urban America. The reservation is a vast 27,000 square miles with few grocery stores and a population with an unemployment rate of around 50 percent. Thousands of people live without electricity and have no way of storing perishable food items for too long.
“They have a tendency to purchase what’s available, and it’s not always the best food,’’ said Leslie Wheelock, director of tribal relations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wheelock said the diabetes issue in tribal communities is one that has been overlooked in the past or not taken as seriously as it could be. It has roots in the federal government taking over American Indian lands and introducing food that tribal members weren’t used to, she said.
To help remedy that, the USDA runs a program that distributes nutritional food to 276 tribes. Grants from the agency have gone toward gardening lessons for children within the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, culturally relevant exercise programs for the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota and food demonstrations using fresh fruit and vegetables on the Zuni reservations in New Mexico.
The Dine Community Advocacy Alliance estimated a junk-food tax would result in at least $1 million a year in revenue that could go toward wellness centers, community parks, walking trails and picnic grounds in Navajo communities in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. It would have expired at the end of 2018.
No other sales tax on the Navajo Nation specifically targets the spending habits of consumers. Alcohol is sold in a few places on the reservation but isn’t taxed. Retailers and distributors pay a tobacco tax.
Opponents of the junk food tax argued it would burden customers and drive revenue off the reservation. Mike Gardner, executive director of the Arizona Beverage Association, said the lack of specifics in the legislation as to what exactly would be taxed could mean fruit juice and nutritional shakes could be lumped in the same category as sodas.
“I don’t think they mean that, but that’s what will happen,’’ Gardner said. “It’s a little loose, a little vague. It’s going to create problems for retailers and … it doesn’t solve the problem.’’
Although we’re hearing predictions of snow this weekend, if you look, there are signs of spring everywhere. Many people see cherry blossoms as one of the first signs, however, here at Tulalip we look for Indian Plum and other native plants. The above photo was taken in my back yard. Along with the lengthening day, these small bits of green tell us that spring is here.
Long before the “100-mile diet” became the trendy new way to eat, Native American people of the Pacific Northwest were immersed in this way of eating. And little wonder, for they lived in an environment that was astonishingly bountiful. Forests overflowed with deer, elk, berries, flowers, seeds and greens. Seas and rivers teemed with salmon, prawn, crab and other nourishing plant and animal life. Shorelines were rich with clams, oysters and seaweed.
Salmon n’ Bannock Sous Chef Kyle. The fine-dining restaurant serves wild fish; free range, grass fed and/or organic meat; bannock made fresh daily, and other culinary deights inspired by a variety of First Nations traditons. (Hans Tammemagi)
Food was central to traditional life and was especially enjoyed at feasts and potlatches, where platters boasted salmon, oolichan (a small, oily member of the smelt family), venison, bannock, wild berry jams and much more. For Native people, food is what connected them to family, community and even the afterlife.
Then came the white man, and everything changed. In today’s era, food, generally processed, is purchased at supermarkets or fast-food outlets. Nutrition is too often replaced by sugar, salt and glitzy packaging. And, as is well documented, the health of Native peoples has slowly spiralled downward.
But there is good news: traditional foods are making a comeback. Even better, the old dishes are being infused with modern culinary innovations to make tasty, attractive, and of course, healthy cuisine.
I was in the Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro in Vancouver, British Columbia with a Haida canoe suspended from the ceiling and Native art adorning the deep red walls. The server placed an attractive appetizer platter from the ‘Land and Sea Feast’ menu on the table. I popped a spicy game chorizo sausage into my mouth … wonderful! Then I savored Indian candy — smoked salmon covered with a maple syrup glaze. I spread barbequed salmon mousse on bannock and ladled blueberry chutney onto a piece of bison carpaccio.
Inez Cook, Nuxalk Nation, the co-owner and manager of Salmon n’ Bannock in Vancouver (Hans Tammemagi)
With my mouth full, it was hard to speak, so I listened to Inez Cook, Nuxalk Nation, the co-owner and manager of this fine-dining restaurant, which is winning accolades on the hotly competitive Vancouver cuisine scene. “My bistro is unique. It’s the only restaurant in Vancouver that offers 100 percent First Nations’ food, and it’s staffed entirely by Native people,” she said. “I’m very proud of First Nations’ food,” she continued. “It’s great. I want to shout out: ‘Try it! Eat it!’” I acquiesced and speared a piece of musk ox prosciutto. Delightful!
The bistro opened in 2010 and has slowly gained a following. “None of our food contains preservatives or additives,” Cook said. “Nothing is raised in factory farms or is genetically modified. We source all fresh and wild foods so it’s very healthy.”
“The most popular dishes are salmon, barbequed or smoked, and deer shank with red wine gravy,” Cook said. These are paired with wines from Nk’Mip Cellars, a Native-owned and -operated winery in the Okanagan Valley, central British Columbia.”
When I remarked that the menu featured mostly fish and meat, Cook answered with a laugh, “Yes, Natives think that vegetarians are just lousy hunters.”
The “Bounty Bowl” at The Blackfish Salmon Grill (Tulalip Casino & Resort)
At present, unfortunately, eating establishments offering traditional Native food are rare. The Blackfish Salmon Grill at Tulalip Casino & Resort, north of Seattle, Washington, is one of the exceptions. “We are not a strictly Native cuisine restaurant,” explained Chef David Buchanan, “but rather, our style is innovative Pacific Northwest influenced by traditional tribal culture and cuisine.”
Wild salmon cooked on Tulalip hand-carved, ironwood sticks over an alderwood fire is very popular. Other menu items include an appetizer of clam fritters (from a Tulalip tribal elder recipe), local root vegetables, corn cakes and fresh berry soufflé. Typical ingredients include local clams, Alaskan prawns, many varieties of oysters, Alaskan halibut, wild Steelhead, blueberries, blackberries, hazelnuts, wild chanterelle and morel mushrooms.
“We strive to put a little twist on every dish, to make it our own. For instance, our crab cakes have roasted fresh sweet corn and apple-smoked bacon in them and are served with three sauces and an apple-watercress salad,” Buchanan explained.
The Blackfish Salmon Grill is like a Longhouse with large beams accenting the ceiling and a long, beautiful natural wood community table in the center of the room. The focal piece is an open fire pit on which on which the Salmon on a Stick is prepared.
Buchanan said “I am especially intrigued by how in Native culture the entire process of a meal is so holistic. Thanks is given for the return of the salmon each year and for the sustenance it gives. Thanks and a prayer are also given for the wood when it is harvested to carve the Ironwood sticks used for roasting the salmon. Those who prepare the meal should do so with good intent in their hearts. The meal is a time for sharing with friends and family, and being thankful for those who helped catch and prepare the food.”
But those living in the Seattle area don’t need to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy Native food. Instead, they can use Facebook to track down the current location of Off the Rez, the first Native American food truck in the country. Pale blue in color, the truck serves up a variety of Native fry breads of which the three-taco combo with pork, beef and chicken fillings is reputed to be outstanding.
The ‘Land and Sea Feast’ platter at Salmon n’ Bannock in Vancouver (Hans Tammemagi)
There are two smaller but notable Native eateries. The Riverwalk Café at the Quw’utsun Cultural Centre in Duncan, BC, on Vancouver Island. Situated on the banks of the Cowichan River, a heritage river with three salmon runs each year, the Café features such delicacies as smoked and candied salmon, clams and octopus. The Riverwalk Café is open only for lunch from June to September.
The Thunderbird Café is part of the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre in Whistler, BC. It is open year-round but only to 5 p.m. Its Indian Taco with venison chilli and bannock is reputed to be truly man-size. Other favorites are salmon chowder and smokies made of wild boar and bison. They also make a venison pemmican with local berries and nuts.
While waiting for more restaurants to offer traditional Native cuisine, you may decide to cook at home with friends. Thanks to Dolly and Annie Watts, a mother and daughter team, you can do just that, guided by their book, Where People Feast – An Indigenous People’s Cookbook. The cookbook, one of the few that focuses on west coast Native cuisine, appeared in 2007 and was an instant hit, winning rave reviews and the Gourmand Award for best local cuisine book in Canada. Where People Feast is crammed with easy-to-follow traditional and modern aboriginal recipes, from hot buttered halibut to juniper berry sauce to bannock and also includes methods for smoking and drying wild game, preparing seafood and preserving berries.
A champion of traditional Native food is Chef Ben Genaille, a Cree, who moved from Manitoba to the west coast about 20 years ago where he has worked at several top restaurants. He’s passionate about Native dishes, preparing them using contemporary methods and presenting them with modern flair. He established an Aboriginal Culinary Program at Thompson River University, Kamloops, British Columbia, the only one in North America.
The Aboriginal Culinary Arts Certificate Program integrates an understanding and appreciation of the important value food plays in Aboriginal culture. (Thompson Rivers University)
In 2012, Genaille led a team of five young west-coast Native chefs to the World Culinary Olympics in Germany. “I’m very proud of them. They worked hard and trained for five years for the competition,” he said. “We focussed on Pacific Northwest ingredients and showed the world that First Nations cuisine is at the cutting edge of local food.” Dishes that caught the judges’ eyes included oolichan oil in dessert, herring eggs in soup and a platter with five types of salmon, each prepared a different way.
Chef Genaille is an unabashed supporter of Native cuisine. “It all hinges on getting talented young chefs,” he stresses. “We must strive to give them pride and passion. And that’s happening. As these young chefs develop, traditional Native food will grow in popularity.”
Where People Feast – An Indigenous Peoples’ Cookbook
The cover of the book Where People Feast (Arsenal Pulp Press)
Preheat oven to 350°F (180° C). Crush the berries, garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin seeds, and onion flakes in a mortar. Rub the crushed spices onto the roast and then pan-sear the roast in a hot frying pan with the oil to lock in the juices. Put roast in a roasting pan and add the boiling water, then roast for 1 hour, basting at least 4 times. Makes 3 servings.