Food Is Our Medicine | Background
Native peoples’ genetic makeup has been largely determined by the foods and medicines their ancestors relied upon for thousands of years. After generations and generations of reliance on a particular food system, each Native Nation has adapted to the plants and animals in their homelands. These successful adaptations resulted in a Native knowledge base. Native American Ethnobotanist Daniel S. Moerman, PhD, recognized that we are deeply indebted “to those predecessors of ours on the North American continent who…seriously, deliberately, and thoughtfully studied the flora…learned its secrets, and encouraged the next generation to study closer and to learn more. Their diligence and energy, their insight and creativity, these are the marks of true scientists, dedicated to gaining meaningful knowledge from a complex and confusing world” (Native American Ethnobotany). This knowledge often resulted in impressive bodily strength. For example, a Jesuit missionary, Francois Lafitau (1712-1717), lived among the Haudenosaunee and recorded the following: “Active life in the open air… the temperance and self-control necessary in the life of the good hunter… all contributed to make the Iroquois, physically, fine specimens of humanity. The men were tall, six feet in height, well proportioned, with regular features… their senses are most perfect… they have exceedingly acute vision, excellent hearing, an ear for music, and a rare sense of smell.” Scholar and author Simon Brascoupé demonstrates the impact of Native knowledge on non-Natives when he states, “Indigenous peoples shared their food, technology, and land with Europeans. There were numerous settlements using European technology and provisions that did not survive the first winter. Europeans required Indigenous knowledge and assistance to establish themselves on the Great Turtle Island.” It was the connection and relationship of Native people to the land that resulted in their strength and their ability to strengthen others.
In the last few centuries, the intimate and deep relationship of Native peoples to the landscape – developed over thousands of years – has been violently disrupted due to colonization and globalization. Native crops were burned in military campaigns, traditional knowledge holders were silenced, the people were forcibly removed from their lands, and the children extracted from their families to be assimilated in federally-funded boarding schools. These are some of the reasons why many Native people today no longer live in their traditional territories or eat their traditional foods. In addition, today’s industrial food era values quantity over quality and profit over sustainability. This set of values regarding the relationship to the land has resulted in unsustainable, ubiquitous, unnatural concentrations of sugar, salt, and fat in the diet of over-developed countries which, in turn, has caused unprecedented rates of nutrition-related diseases such as Type II diabetes across all populations.
Native peoples suffer disproportionately from TII diabetes as compared to non-Native individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite heart disease as the leading cause of death among Native peoples (www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus.htm), with stroke as the fifth leading cause (American Diabetes Association). Moreover, it has been documented that two out of three individuals with diabetes die from heart attack or stroke (www.diabetes.org). The Indian Health Service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that Native Americans are 2.2 times more likely to have diabetes compared with the majority population. This extraordinarily high incidence of diabetes among Native peoples speaks not only to the potential for a diminished quality of life for those with diabetes – including eye, foot, and skin complications; neuropathy (nerve damage); kidney disease; and lower limb amputation – but also to an increased likelihood of premature death from heart disease or stroke. The occurrence of diabetes among Native peoples is, unfortunately, mirrored by data from the Seneca Nation’s two territories, with an incidence rate of 28.4% at the Allegany Territory and 29.7% at the Cattaraugus Territory. It is the forced disconnection and dysfunctional relationship to the land today that has resulted in the sickness of Native and non-Native people.
Despite this seemingly overwhelming complex set of contributing factors, many Native community members have organized to respond to this crisis. They seek to collectively regain their strength and well-being by turning back towards their sustainable, culturally-informed, traditional food ways. The natural result of this growing movement is the creation of the Food Is Our Medicine Project at the Seneca Nation of Indians. This project has played, and will continue to play, a significant role in a growing network of Native organizations and community volunteers working to create alternative, sustainable food systems recruiting plants that are Native to the Western New York Region. It is the reconnection of Native people to the land that will restore their strength and their ability to strengthen others.
The Food Is Our Medicine Project is an initiative of the Seneca Diabetes Foundation (SDF). Although independent of the Seneca Nation of Indians, the SDF works to raise money to fund Seneca Nation health, wellness and recreation programs in order to positively affect the impact diabetes has on Seneca people of all ages. According to SDF Founder and Board Chairman Barry E. Snyder, Sr., “Years ago, American Indians did not have diabetes…Today diabetes is one of the top health problems affecting the Seneca Nation of Indians. In fact, diabetes affects 50 percent of all American Indians versus six percent of the country’s general population. One in two adults in the Seneca Nation has diabetes and it’s affecting our young people at earlier ages” (www.senecadiabetesfoundation.org). Both the Seneca Diabetes Foundation and the Food Is Our Medicine Project are working to improve the health and well-being of Seneca Nation members, and to raise awareness of the crucial role that sound food decisions can play in this process.