American Indians are tackling obesity and diabetes by embracing ancient foods.
Bit by bit, the farm at Little Earth is growing.
So, too, is a movement among American Indians in Minnesota and elsewhere to improve their health by rediscovering ancestral foods and connections to lands once lost.
Far from access to natural maple syrup, wild rice and game available Up North, the residents at Little Earth of United Tribes — a south Minneapolis low-income housing complex — are finding new old ways to grow crops that existed long before European settlers arrived.
Some adherents even have a name for this concept: the decolonized diet.
“It’s growing in the last 10 years within the native communities in the United States,” said Susen Fagrelius, coordinator of Little Earth’s community health initiatives. As more people realize they can grow a significant amount of vegetables on a small parcel of land, they discover that “they have the ability to take back their food system.”
Lakota sage appears where once ordinary grass grew. Rows of Oneida cornstalks tower 6 feet in the air. Raspberries — the kind once blanketing North American forests — cover a small patch of the farm.
Across the country, projects like the Little Earth Urban Farm are taking aim at the staggering obesity and diabetes rates that plague American Indian communities. Indian adults are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“The health problems among native people have just become so profound you have no place to go but up. It has to be addressed,” said Devon Abbott Mihesuah, a University of Kansas professor and author of “Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness.”
Sowing seeds of good health
When Indians were forced onto reservations, government commodities replaced the unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods they were used to eating, said Mihesuah, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who runs the American Indian Health and Diet Project at the University of Kansas.
“Type 2 diabetes didn’t start showing up until after the Civil War,” she said. “Up until that time there weren’t any pictures of [Indian] people being fat.”
Fry bread — a flavorful, deep-fried dough served at many Indian gatherings — is not an indigenous food, Mihesuah argues. She has a bumper sticker on her car with a red line crossing out the words “fry bread.” She’s taken some heat for that statement from other Indians who have called her “anti-Indian,” she said.
But despite some resistance, the decolonized diet movement is spreading seeds nationwide.
In New Mexico, indigenous food programs are working to preserve seeds from hundreds of years ago. Tribes in North Carolina are restoring native fruit and vegetable plants in newly established gardens. Closer to home, the White Earth Land Recovery Project aims to preserve original land practices.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is at the forefront of these efforts. Lori Watso, a former public health nurse and Shakopee tribe member, was the inspiration for the expansive garden and natural health store established on tribal land in Prior Lake.
Through food, she wanted to “help our community and other native communities address acute and chronic conditions,” she said. The diabetes rate among Indians in Minnesota is a whopping 40 percent.
Reversing that trend remains a formidable challenge.
“It’s very difficult to change people’s minds about something so personal as [the food] they’re going to put into their bodies,” said Watso, secretary-treasurer of the tribe’s business council.