Food can be free from colonization’s impact.
We live in a society that’s obsessed with media and health trends. Getting inundated with messaging about what foods you should or shouldn’t eat is a common occurrence.
Of course, the experience of searching for information online is a toss-up.
If you’re on #HealthyTok or if you’ve joined a Facebook group aimed at healthy eating, there’s a good chance you’re seeing the same ingredients pop up on your screen again and again.
There’s a breadth of information literally at your fingertips, but it’s also exceptionally easy for marginalized voices and experiences to be overshadowed.
This creates the idea that what’s most prevalent are the only options available, even when it comes to nutrition and food.
But what exactly counts as healthy? More importantly, who decided?
Let’s dive in to how colonization has affected our food choices, what really counts as indigenous food, and how to embrace it in your own kitchen.
Challenging the idea of what’s considered “healthy food” first requires an acknowledgment of the land we’re on and the true history of our countries and continents.
Those of us in the US, Canada, and Europe are heavily influenced by the legacy of colonialization — the overtaking of an already occupied Indigenous land.
The Spaniards who invaded Native land in what’s now the US introduced food items like bread and wine to the Native regions, actively pushing Indigenous food aside but simultaneously utilizing Indigenous agricultural knowledge to further their personal growth.
Due to this sordid history, the effects of colonization have seen into every aspect of our lives. They remain active on a systemic level.
The foods we eat every day are no exception.
Indigenous foods are those that are native to each region, so they vary depending on your location.
Indigenous foods are whole foods. That doesn’t mean the Whole30 diet or the grocery store chain. It means foods that come directly from the ground or an animal.
Anything outside of that definition wasn’t around before colonization.
For instance, Food is Power shares:
- Plants like barley and wheat were brought over from other regions.
- Animals like cows and chickens were not native to the lands Europeans invaded.
- While milking animals wasn’t new, this wasn’t a common practice for Indigenous communities.
Any food products that are processed, or not in their natural state, as well as nonindigenous plants and animals are examples too.
Several Indigenous folks from across the US, Canada, and Mexico are honoring their culture through food. They’re either leading initiatives, educating, or running restaurants (or all three!)
One example is award-winning chef Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, and founder of The Sioux Chef.
Sherman started his business as a food educator and caterer, later expanding into his current restaurant, Owamni. Owamni is a full-service eatery that offers Indigenous cuisine to North America and the Minnesota area.
I “really wanted to make a change because I realized that an indigenous diet has so much health benefit. There’s immensely more plant diversity compared to the Western European colonists.”
Sherman shared his experience growing up on a reservation, including the poor quality of food provided to his community through government programming. Things like powdered milk and low quality cheese were staples.
He attributes the highly processed nature of these foods to corresponding levels of chronic health conditions in Native communities.
“It’s just what we’ve been subjected to for the past century,” he said.
Rediscovering Indigenous foods
In learning about food, Sherman realized there’s very little conversation about Indigenous culture and influence. There’s also very little showcasing of Indian foods and cuisine.
“I became a chef in Minneapolis at a fairly young age and learned lots of different cuisines,” he says. “Then one day, I realized the complete absence of indigenous foods out there and even in my own education.”
Even as an Indigenous person who grew up on a reservation, Sherman wasn’t familiar with traditional ways of eating.
“I didn’t even know that much about my own heritage food,” he says. “So, it really struck me that it just wasn’t there.”
The Owamni menu rotates and bookings have been full since their opening last year.
Everything is always free of dairy, soy, gluten, and added sugars. It also highlights wild game and healthy fats.
“We’re not trying to recreate the past,” he says. “We’re just trying to modernize what already is and define what our indigenous foods for the future will be, and hold on to a lot of that health.”
Finding ways to eat outside of what’s readily available isn’t always accessible. This is especially true in light of rising food costs due to inflation.
Wild game from a local butcher may not be in your budget. You may be vegetarian and legumes and cheese may be your main sources of protein.
Whatever your current situation is, you can start by becoming more aware of the origins of the foods on your plate.
Tribal lands, tribal foods
What land are you currently on? What herbs, fruits, and vegetables are native to your region?
You can use a tool like Native Land Digital to find out what tribes originally occupied the land you live on.
Looking into the tribes in your surrounding area can lead you back to Indigenous foodways. They may also have cultural centers where you can learn more about traditional Native ways of life and get involved in advocacy.
Make small changes
Consider making small changes, like only buying fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market to ensure they’re locally grown.
You can also experiment with cutting down your meat or dairy consumption to twice a week instead of every day, for instance.
Maybe shifting your diet doesn’t feel like the right course of action for you. That’s OK.
Consider supporting organizations doing food justice work that focuses on Indigenous communities.
Food Empowerment Project
FEP, an organization founded by a woman of color that focuses on understanding the power your food holds, discusses the role of colonialism in our diets.
FEP’s work extends past the food on the table and includes reports and policy on food access, promoting culturally competent and ethical veganism, and pushing for farmworker rights.
The I-Collective is also doing work around food justice inspired by four primary principles:
This collective is comprised of Indigenous chefs, named herbalists, and more, all working to elevate Indigenous culture, past and present.
They’re focused on creating a new narrative highlighting the buried history of Indigenous contributions and promoting Indigenous innovations in agriculture and the arts.
North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems
NATIFS, founded by Jake Sherman of The Sioux Chef, is an organization focused on reversing the trauma of colonialism in Indigenous communities. For NATIFS, food is at the center of that work.
They focus on:
- research and development
- Indigenous food identification, gathering, cultivation, and preparation
- the components of running a successful culinary business based on Native traditions and Indigenous foods
Of course, if you live in or are traveling to areas where folks like Sherman and other Indigenous-food focused chefs live, you can always make a reservation.
If you’re looking into alternatives of viewing your relationship with food, that’s a great beginning. Taking the time to research and acknowledge the land that you’re on is a step in the right direction.
For nonindigenous folks, you can reflect on the ways the land you live on has been shaped and molded by colonizers, or how those who came before have been virtually erased from history.
Sherman says the most important part is honoring the history and ongoing relationship of Indigenous folks and food.
“It helps people connect to where we live a little bit better and also appreciate everything that the indigenous peoples learned and had to go through to still be alive today,” he says.
Taneasha White (she/her), a graduate of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, is a Black, Queer lover of words, inquisition, and community, and has used her role within both literary and organizational spaces to make room for Folks who are often cast aside, silenced, or overlooked. In addition to mental health, her other writing, editing, and sensitivity consulting work covering varied topics related to the intersections of blackness, fatness, & Queerness, activism, and reproductive justice. Taneasha is excited to continue this work of amplifying marginalized voices, centering intersectionality, and destigmatizing mental health.