Resurgence of Indigenous Food Traditions Helps Heal Bodies and Spirits

Prior to European contact, American Indians (AI), Alaska Natives (AN), and Native Hawaiians (NH) had relatively low prevalence of chronic disease. Over many generations, these populations respected, cared for, and depended upon the plants and animals of their lands, which were used for food, medicine, and ceremony. Food had deep cultural and spiritual significance, and food-related beliefs and practices were part of community identity. Colonization forced Native people to consume a westernized diet, and the loss of culture, land and livelihoods led to poor economic and health outcomes. Trauma from these multiple losses and subsequent rise in poverty and illness have negatively impacted these populations across multiple generations.

Culture is vital to good health, and it serves as the primary vehicle for healing. Today, a growing number of Indigenous communities are reconnecting with their traditional foods and embracing food sovereignty to improve the health of their peoples. This article provides a snapshot of food-related programs for and by Native elders.

Heidi Robertson, Title VI Nutrition Consultant

I support the 292 Title VI programs funded under the Older Americans Act to provide congregate meals, home-delivered meals, nutrition education and nutrition counseling in AI/AN/NH communities. All programs are encouraged to incorporate traditional foods into meals and activities. To further support these efforts, our office recently launched a Native Food Directory, which is a free, public marketing resource for AI/AN/NH food producers. As the Title VI nutrition consultant, I hear incredible stories about the impact of incorporating traditional foods in senior nutrition programs like this one.

Victoria Wells Waabigekek, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians

I coordinate the Wisdom Keepers Elders Program for our tribe in Michigan. I began incorporating Indigenous foods into our program’s menu and sharing my story about finding my way home through food. First, I incorporated traditional meats, such as elk and venison, replacing the beef in our Taco Tuesday meal. I also made wabooz (rabbit stew) and other soups. The more times the elders ate our traditional foods, the more they began healing. I watched them put down alcohol and drugs, choosing instead to get involved in the tribe.

The more times the elders ate our traditional foods, the more they began healing. I watched them put down alcohol and drugs, choosing instead to get involved in the tribe.

Recently, while eating black bean and venison stew, they confessed they didn’t know how to make a difference. It was the first time in a long time the elders wanted their voices to be heard. Soon, the elders were voicing their concerns at our Tribal Council Meeting, and they laid out our seven grandfather teachings, marking the beginning of the healing process—uncharted territory for our tribe.

Now, real change is beginning. Our elders are asking for completely traditional dishes and, as they ask for these, they find the inner strength to push for change, strengthen the membership, and bring back the wisdom they thought was lost. This is why we are called the Wisdom Keepers Elders Program.

Collette Adamsen, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa

I direct the National Resource Center on Native American Aging, which collects needs-assessment data through the 292 Title VI programs across the United States. About 19,750 AI/AN/NH elders participated in the 2020–2023 data collection cycle, and 6,376 (33%) of them reported having access to traditional foods and consuming them regularly. Survey results suggest that those who consumed traditional foods five times a week had a significantly lower prevalence of diabetes compared to those who did not consume traditional foods. The availability of traditional foods is increasing in our tribe too, as recounted by my cousin, Michelle, below.

Michelle Short-Azure, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa

I am the Tribal Extension Program Director at Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota. Our program, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)/National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), helps tribal college students and families learn about traditional foods preparation, preservation, and cooking. For example, they learn how to bake Bannock (bread), pickle beets, fillet fish, harvest buffalo and deer meat, and make jams and jellies. When a community member donated rabbit, we all learned to make rubbaboo, a traditional Métis stew.

Our elders remember when gardening and harvesting were essential to survival. Grocery stores, offering convenient access to food, reduced the necessity to garden. But now, our elders want to relearn these skills so they can teach their grandchildren about our traditions. So, we expanded teachings on Native American gardening techniques. For example, participants learn about the three sisters’ garden, in which corn, squash and beans are planted together and grow symbiotically. This practice deters weeds and pests, enriches the soil, and provides a balanced diet.

For many of our elders, it is difficult to get down in the dirt to garden. We started building elevated garden beds that allow them to sit while gardening. These beds can be put on rollers and moved around as needed. Since the project’s inception, 70 elders have received gardening beds. We also support the garden at our tribal retirement home. Tribal college students garden alongside elders, and elders pass down our traditional ways. Before we started this project, only one or two students would report knowing how to garden; but now 80% of the class members will raise their hands when asked the same question.

Melissa Chlupach, Alaska Native Ally

Traditional foods are a way of life for many AN people. These foods offer a sense of home, promote cultural identity, and improve quality of life, especially for those who were forced into boarding schools or experienced trauma in other institutions. Along with Indigenous peoples across the country, AN are reclaiming their traditional foods, restoring food systems, and advocating for food sovereignty.

‘These foods offer a sense of home, promote cultural identity, and improve quality of life, especially for those who were forced into boarding schools.’

Several efforts include incorporating traditional food into today’s institutions, such as the Maniilaq Association’s long-term care facility (Utuqqanaat Inaat—a place for Elders). Here, elders wanted the food they grew up eating, but prior to the 2014 Farm Bill, there were limitations to offering these foods. Following passage of the bill and clarification of verbiage in the Alaska Food Code, the Maniilaq Association expanded their Hunter Support Program and built a traditional foods processing facility called the Siġḷauq (Iñupiaq for cold storage or ice cellar). The first donation they processed was 200 pounds of musk ox, which the elders thoroughly enjoyed.

The Maniilaq Association also collaborated with microbiologists and food scientists to develop a safe way to traditionally render seal oil, a traditional staple of Iñupiaq peoples. However, due to the potential hazards of botulism, seal oil had been prohibited in state and federal regulations. A safe way to traditionally render seal oil and destroy toxins was developed, and the Maniilaq Association was granted a food-code variance to offer seal oil.

Another champion is the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC), which provides medical care for all 229 of Alaska’s federally recognized tribes. Passage of the 2014 Farm Bill enabled ANMC to implement its traditional foods donation program. Since its inception, the program has received approximately 20 tons of traditional food donations, including moose, caribou, deer, salmon, fiddlehead ferns, wild Alaska berries, spruce tips and much more. Today, approximately 68% of the menu includes traditional foods. When we deliver these traditional meals, we see patients smile, and we know they are healing right then and there.

Kathryn Braun, Native Hawaiian Ally

Hawai‘i also is seeing a resurgence of programs that expand access to traditional foods. For example, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa and Jane Chung-Do have been collaborating since 2010 on the MALAMA project, which stands for Mini Ahupuaa (mountain to sea) for Lifestyle And Meaai (food) through Aquaponics. Aquaponics mimics traditional NH food systems by combining hydroponics (raising plants in water) and aquaculture (raising fish in tanks) to create a contained, sustainable, food production system. A 6-month culturally grounded curriculum teaches families how to build and maintain a backyard aquaponics system and prepare healthy meals and traditional medicines. Positive outcomes include increased access to traditional foods, including taro and fish, increased food security and food sharing, healthier eating, and lowered HbA1c in participants ages 52 and older.

Hawai‘i Good Food Alliance, headed by Kai‘ulani Odom, is an alliance of local farms and traditional food suppliers across the islands. One of its members is Ma‘o Farms, a certified organic farm that also hosts a youth leadership training program. Students who work on the farm part time receive a scholarship to attend the local community college, and another program helps them transition to a 4-year college. General Manager Kaui Sana says, “it’s pretty amazing when you see those sparks in their eyes as they reconnect to the land, grow food for their elders, and advance in college.”

Despite centuries of loss, there are multiple examples of how AI/AN/NH communities are taking charge of their food systems and their well-being. This short article just skims the surface of the Indigenous food sovereignty projects underway among Native peoples in the United States.

Collette Adamsen, PhD, is an assistant professor and director of the National Resource Center for Native American Aging at the University of North Dakota. Victoria Wells Waabigekek is the coordinator for the Wisdom Keepers Elders Title VI Program for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Michigan. Michelle Short-Azure is the Tribal Extension program director at Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota. Melissa Chlupach, MS, RD, LD, is an assistant professor in Dietetics and Nutrition at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, specializing in Alaska Native traditional foods, nutrition and health. Heidi Roberson, MPH, is a nutrition consultant with the Office of American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian Programs at the Administration on Aging, ACL, which manages Title VI and the National Resource Centers for Native Aging. Kathryn L. Braun, DrPH, is professor and director of Hā Kūpuna National Resource Center for Native Hawaiian Elders at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Photo caption: Older adults in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation make use of raised planter beds provided by the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Project.

Photo credit: Courtesy the Lakota Times.