Native American Health Traumas Addressed

cross-posted from Indian Country

By Devon G. Peña, Ph.D.

European colonizers destroyed bison populations in North America, creating negative health implications for native peoples.

One of the consequences of the conquest and settlement of North and South America by Europeans was the displacement and destruction of native biological and cultural diversity. The environmental historian Alfred Crosby has called the European invasion of the Americas [sic] a biological conquest and a form of “ecological imperialism.”

No space or native habitat touched by colonialism was spared the effects of this bio-invasion. Indigenous plants and animals were diminished by the violence and displacement associated with the arrival of European colonizers and their biotic baggage. Cattle displaced bison; sheep replaced native deer; wheat displaced maize and amaranth.

Europeans and others benefited from the arrival of the crops of Native America including amaranth, agave, avocado, bean, bell pepper, cashew, cassava, chili, cocoa (for chocolate) corn, guava, peanut, potato, pumpkin, tomato, vanilla, wild rice, and many more.

A demographic catastrophe resulted and native populations declined by 70 to 98 percent. This was caused by genocide through war, enslavement and forced labor, introduced disease (smallpox, measles), and widespread hunger and malnutrition. Many people were worked or starved to death in mines, plantations, and sweatshops.

Historical trauma and native foods

Recently, we have become more aware of the peculiar form of death facing Native peoples as a result of processes that Russel L. Barsch calls ecocide, or death caused by destruction of indigenous ecosystems including the agricultural and food systems of entire cultures and civilizations.

Research demonstrates that access to traditional foods—the nutritional substances a given people co-evolve with over generations of living and adapting to place—is essential to our health. Thus, eating poorly is not a case of persons making “poor personal choices” or engaging in “bad individual behaviors;” it is a matter of systematic discrimination and structural violence when people are denied access to the resources they need to maintain their own indigenous food traditions, cuisines, and diets.

Barsh and Gary Paul Nabhan, and others have documented the devastating effects of nutritional genocide in their studies of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest. The health effects are still being amplified by institutional racism and colonial domination and the ecological wreckage left in the wake of conquest, enclosure, and domination.

This peculiar form of barely visible structural violence proceeds from the destruction of ecosystems and indigenous farming and heritage cuisines. A principal consequence of this form of ecocide are increased morbidity, reduced life spans, and the greater incidence of chronic conditions related to diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes linked to malnutrition, hunger, and culturally inappropriate non-traditional diets.

Trauma studies emerged after the Nazi Holocaust, but the concept was applied to Native American communities for the first time in the 1980s as a result of the work of Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart and her colleagues. The basic idea involves recognition that “Historical trauma is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma. Native Americans have, for over 500 years, endured physical, emotional, social, and spiritual genocide from European and American colonialist policy.”

It is a recurrent form of trauma that affects entire communities because the violence and discrimination is directed at the collective and not just individual members of the culture. The effects of historical trauma include alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence and child abuse, malnutrition, obesity, and cardiovascular illness.

Perhaps the most pernicious form of structural violence is that which proceeds through silent erasure. The forced eradication of Native foods, foodways, and farming traditions has caused grave damage to people and the land. But the silent killer of nutricide is being challenged.

Deep food: Healing through heritage cuisine

Native peoples are resilient. We are organizing to reverse the damage produced by centuries of historical trauma and structural violence. Today, we are witnessing the emergence and florescence of a pivotal movement involving the recovery of ancestral food crops, wild plants, and heritage cuisines.

This is what I call “deep food” to distinguish it from the “local” and “slow” food because this is about the recovery of the deeply rooted ancestral foods and food ways of the First Peoples.

This indigenous movement focuses on improving health through heritage cuisines. It also ties together respect for and assertion of treaty rights as civil rights and the restoration of traditional hunting, foraging, and farming methods and principles. An important part of this work involves establishing community gardens, home kitchen gardens, agro-forestry mosaics or “food forest” projects, and many other innovative campaigns. Here are two examples from the Pacific Northwest.

Skokomish First Foods Sovereignty

The Skokomish community garden and elder/youth mentoring project will reintroduce traditional native plants, game, and vegetables such as camas and medicinal herbs to a community actively seeking physical, mental, and spiritual healing from the effects of intergenerational trauma caused by colonization and forced assimilation policies of the U.S. government. The project works at improving tribal health through traditional tuwaduq first foods.

Numerous clinical and ethnographic studies confirm a strong association between the decline of traditional foodways and the higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular illnesses. New studies in nutrition science and anthropology of food are demonstrating that we can eliminate the debilitating negative health outcomes for the community by promoting first foods, and heritage cuisines.

First Foods Sovereignty Project: From Shoreline to Mountain Tops engages tribal elders in mentoring relations with tribal youth. The elders have wisdom and knowledge of the medicinal herbs and plants and wild game and foraged species and are guiding and mentoring Skokomish youth.

Young people will provide the creative labor and learn the deeply rooted traditions and practices of gathering, foraging, hunting, and gardening that will revitalize connections to landscape. Delbert Miller (sm3tcoom), elder leader and organizer of the project, describes the work in eloquent terms:

Our elders will instruct youth in food and place from shoreline to mountaintop. There is a phrase in the Skokomish native language that captures the ultimate goal of this project: Sqa hLab hLits hLa Wa Wa. This means the food for future children.

Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project

A similar effort is underway in a collaborative project uniting three first nations from the Puget Sound bioregion through the Northwest Indian College. A report from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission explains that this project works to assist “tribal members incorporate more traditional foods in their diets.”

The Muckleshoot project joins teaching with harvesting and farming. It also makes a very clear argument that food sovereignty is a matter of environmental and social justice. We cannot separate access to local, fresh, organic, and culturally-appropriate foods from the struggles to overcome decades of environmental racism that have polluted our waterways, soils, air, and bodies.

Billy Frank, Chair of the Fisheries Commission explains the history and objectives of this project:

The Food Sovereignty program helps tribal members make those foods – such as nettles, camas, huckleberries, salmon and wild game – part of their everyday lives. The project reminds us that to have traditional foods, we must continue to be good natural resources managers…[We] are sovereign nations, and part of that sovereignty includes access to the traditional foods needed to keep our communities and ourselves healthy and strong.

The production of food is as much about taking care of the land. Taking care of creation is the first step toward taking care of each other and our homes.

Muckleshoot’s community nutritionist is a young scholar activist by the name of Valerie Segrest. Ms. Segrest recently published a book intended for Native American readers entitled Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit. With her co-author (Elise Krohn), she offers a set of eight Traditional Food Principles they developed from the experience of working with the tribal elders in their food sovereignty project:

1. Food is at the center of culture

2. Honor the food web/chain

3. Eat with the seasons

4. Eat a variety of foods

5. Traditional foods are whole foods

6. Eat local foods

7. Wild and organic foods are better for health

8. Cook and eat with good intention

These principles are based on daily lived practices that can help persons take responsibility for restoring their own health and well-being. I am reminded of Taiaiake Alfred’s suggestion that we do not preserve our traditions, we live our traditions.

The principal lesson I have learned from these inspirational projects is perhaps best expressed by Mohawk scholar, Taiaiake Alfred : “The time to blame the white man, the far away and long ago, is over. People should recognize that the enemy is close enough to touch,” and to eat, I will add.

The colonizer’s food is slowly killing us. Food is the weapon of self-destruction the colonizer placed in our hands and sells to us at fast food joints and convenience marts. But food is also the solution. It is our tool for liberation, health, and spiritual healing. Deep food is the means to move toward autonomy and the renewal of a living traditional community.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. (Chicano/Creek) is a Professor in American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington and a widely published scholar and activist in the environmental justice and sustainable agriculture movements. He is co-founder and president of The Acequia Institute and manages the Institute’s 200-acre farm in Colorado’s San Luis Valley where he is a plant breeder and seed saver.

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