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The New Focus On Native American Cooking

By Karen Lincoln Michel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page F01

Cedar-planked, fire-roasted juniper salmon and the ash-roasted sweet corn with hazelnut butter are not typical cafeteria fare in the museums that line the Mall, where hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza are in abundance. But as these dishes and other regional foods make their appearance on the menu of the Mitsitam Cafe in the new National Museum of the American Indian, it will be one more step in a growing movement to highlight and preserve Native American cuisine.

The movement was the focus of the Native Food Summit held in Milwaukee earlier this monthto coincide with the city's annual Indian Summer Festival, one of the midwest's largest Native American cultural festivals. The summit, which was sponsored by First Nations Development Institute, based in Fredericksburg, drew 160 attendees from food-related nonprofit organizations focused not just on Native cuisine but on building sustainable food systems on tribal land.


(Mary Annette Pember For The Washington Post)

It also emphasized the need to combat diabetes and childhood obesity among Native Americans. According to a recent study, an estimated 40 percent of Native American youth are overweight. And the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.6 times more likely to develop diabetes than non-Hispanic whites and have a greater chance of contracting kidney and cardiovascular diseases.

Like many population groups in the United States today, many Native Americans have abandoned the diet of their ancestors.

Bea Medicine, a Native American anthropologist, says that traditional food staples of Indian tribes -- wild game, berries, roots, teas and indigenous vegetables -- were high in protein and low in fat. That's a switch from the modern Native American diet, which is high in fat and refined starches and sugars.

Kibbe Conti, a registered dietician and nutritionist who helps tribes nationwide develop nutritional models based on their traditional food supplies, explains how the native people's diet has changed dramatically over the past 200 years.

"It started when Indian people were no longer free to live off the land," said Conti, an Oglala Sioux. After the tribes were placed on reservations, they were fed government rations of processed food. Much of reservation lands could not be farmed. The shift from hunting, gathering and farming to a cash economy in the early 1900s forced family members to leave home in search of work.

Native people kept some traditional foods in their diet, such as Indian corn, squash, wild game and waterfowl, but relied heavily on buying processed foods.

Today, many tribal members exist on a steady diet of government commodities, featuring cheese, canned meat and packaged food, lard and powdered milk, according to Conti. Those in isolated areas have few choices and pay more for groceries. Some shop in remote convenience stores lacking a selection of fresh and nutritional food.

Conti's work and the native food movement fall in line with a global food movement by the International Indian Treaty Council, which works with the United Nations on issues of indigenous rights, traditions and sacred lands. The council promotes peoples' efforts to regain control of natural resources on ancestral lands and to practice their right to control food sources on their land.

"There's no better way to know a people than through their food," said Loretta Barrett Oden, a Potawatomi chef from Oklahoma who worked with the food staff at the conference to serve Native American-inspired creations such as bison, wild rice and black bean salad, sage grits, and maize crepes with sauteed fruit.

To achieve this end, Conti is working with tribes to help them develop specific, historically based nutrition models to replace the existing U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the "food pyramid") . And the summit offered information on applying for grants to fund the food system projects.

Conti considers the food movement the final piece in native peoples' return to wholeness. She said Native Americans have persevered in issues of treaty rights, and have relied on their traditions and spirituality to combat many social issues. Food is their final frontier.

Karen Lincoln Michel is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer, a past president of the Native American Journalists Association and a member of Wisconsin's Ho-Chunk Nation.


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