Today there are over 500 different Native American tribes. One thing they all have in common is sharing a deep reverence for the wellbeing of the environment and humanity. I learned more about indigenous people’s culture through independent research and a phone interview with an expert, Ryan Dennison. Ryan is from the Navajo Diné tribe, which he describes as having traditions deeply intertwined with nature. Ryan is an activist for environmental justice and indigenous rights, and has an extensive background working with FoodCorps and AmeriCorps. His main focus is helping to feed students of all ages living in poverty stricken communities.
The first thing Ryan talked about was traditional and ancestral foods. Ancestral foods are the original crops grown by indigenous people, such as varieties of corn, beans, and squash. Many indigenous tribes refer to these crops as “The Three Sisters”. Ryan believes the decline of ancestral crops is due to western interventions and pollution. Luckily, he believes these crops will make a resurgence as people start living more harmoniously with nature. One sign of progress is the growing practice of foraging, which Ryan sees as being symbolic of the return of ancestral lifeways. Foraging involves collecting natural resources to use as food, medicine, and crafting materials. Indigenous people foraged for many different plants, but one of the most important to the Navajo is the yucca. Yucca root can be used to make soaps and shampoos, and its fibers can be used to craft many useful items such as rope and shoes. Some varieties also produce edible fruits and flowers during spring and summer.
Another topic Ryan and I discussed is the diet and food traditions of indigenous people. The diet of most tribes was once plant-based and seasonal. Meat was consumed, but in moderation and mostly during the winter when plant foods were scarce. The Diné and other tribes sing prayers during all food-related endeavors, and pray when planting and harvesting crops, when foraging, and when processing wild game. Indigenous people also believe moderation of how much food one consumes for a meal is important. A portion of food is measured by the handful, and on a regular basis, one must eat 1-2 portions of food for each of the three daily meals.
Lastly Ryan told me how Western influence has impacted the health and food traditions of indigenous people. Ever since European settlers arrived in the Americas they have forced indigenous people to leave their homelands, which ultimately destroyed their villages along with the ancestral crops. Settlers also over-hunted wild game that indigenous people once depended on, and introduced Western food practices such as raising livestock. The results have lead to a situation where many indigenous communities now live in poverty, have declining health outcomes, increased dependency on western policy, and – worst of all – a weakened connection to nature. Now it’s more affordable to eat processed foods rather than fresh produce.
Another way in which Western influence has affected indigenous ways of life is through the establishment of wildlife refuges. Wildlife refuges are good for protecting local wildlife and plants, however they have stripped away indigenous people’s rights to live off the land for the sake of their livelihood and cultural values.
If human civilization is to become more sustainable, it is crucial for us to reconnect with the natural world. I believe people could learn how to do this from the practices and traditions of Native American tribes. Imagine what we could accomplish by revisiting ancient wisdom with modern technology. Maybe we could incorporate indigenous planting practices, such as multi-cropping, into organic farming. Or we can make stronger medicines by safely enhancing the potency of medicinal plants used for many generations. I believe it is time for humanity to go back to its roots in order to move further into the future.
-Posted by Jonathan P.