Volunteers Follow Pre-Colonial Native American Diet

Monday 29, 2012


            MARQUETTE, Mich.—In an effort to closely replicate the diet of Native Americans prior to colonization, a diverse group of volunteers has committed one year to a diet consisting of foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region and a complementary exercise regimen. They are more than halfway through the Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP) at Northern Michigan University. Recognizing that others might be curious to try it, but unable to commit for an extended period, project director Martin Reinhardt has invited the general public to follow the list of DDP-eligible foods for one week, Nov. 2-9.

The mini-challenge will culminate on the final evening with the First Nations Food Taster held as part of Native American Heritage Month at NMU. The event will feature both DDP-eligible foods and contemporary fare. It is open to the public and scheduled from 5-7 p.m. in the Jacobetti Complex. Tickets are available in advance from the NMU Center for Native American Studies in 112 Whitman Hall for $5 for NMU students and $12 for general admission. Tickets at the door will cost $7 and $15, respectively.

“I had participated in the food taster several times and it had always been in the back of mind how closely related the food we serve at these events is to the foods our ancestors would have eaten in a pre-colonial context,” said Reinhardt, who is an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “There is a deep historical interconnectedness, or spiritual kinship, between indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands that makes the act of eating indigenous plants and animals much more personal. We had to decide how we were going to execute this and how we would find our foods.”

Discussions ensued over the following months at the NMU Center for Native American Studies and blossomed into the DDP. The geographic parameters were set—states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes—and a timeline of the early 1600s established to reflect when colonization began to occur. Reinhardt developed three criteria for foods eligible for the diet: those defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as native to the region, such as whitetail deer and morel mushrooms; non-native foods introduced by indigenous people prior to 1600, including corn, beans and squash (“the three sisters”); and plants and animals that have since derived from those that were here in a pre-colonial context, such as domesticated turkeys bred over the years to have white feathers and plumper thighs and breasts. Genetically modified organisms were excluded.

NMU students helped to develop a master list of eligible foods that is posted online, along with preparation tips and recipes to maximize variety.

Reinhardt recruited about 25 adult volunteers representing a mix of ages, gender, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. They agreed to follow a diet consisting of 25-100 percent indigenous foods. Several opted for the lower end of the spectrum because they thought it would be too life-altering to venture higher. Others settled in the 50-75 percent range. But a few, including Reinhardt and Treasa Sowa of Munising, Mich., embraced the plan 100 percent.

“There are social issues, like having to refrain from eating at functions or bringing my own food places,” Sowa said. “But that hasn’t affected my determination. I’ve lost 23 pounds and there’s a general sense of well-being that’s hard to describe.”

A few participants dropped out. Those who remain log their eating and exercise and share reflections via video, photos, audio and written journals. They have quarterly checkups to monitor key health indicators. The group also meets periodically for cooking demonstrations and potlucks to discuss their experiences. The goal was to determine not only whether the diet improves health, but also what kind of social and legal/political barriers are encountered.

The year-long study ends on March 24, 2013. A final report, DDP recipe book and documentary will follow. Reinhardt obtained funding for the project from an NMU faculty research grant, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Cedar Tree Institute. For more information, visit http://decolonizingdietproject.blogspot.com/. The master food list is available by following the link to the DDP group site. Reinhardt can be reached at mreinhar@nmu.edu

Kristi Evans
News Director

Martin Reinhardt leads a DDP cooking demonstration