Thanksgiving is widely celebrated as a day of offering gratitude for the bounty of the autumn harvest. The traditions of Thanksgiving offer an annual opportunity to gather, share memories, and appreciate an abundance of delicious foods. November is also National Native American History Month which serves as a reminder that the very land we all inhabit is native land that was forcibly taken. With that, we want to acknowledge that Starkel Nutrition itself is built upon native lands – specifically the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish people. While the true history of the Thanksgiving holiday is often overlooked, we hope that this year you and yours can take a moment to reflect on the wealth of knowledge native communities possess – particularly in regards to indigenous foods, native methods of land stewardship, and native practices around food.  

Food provides more than just physical nourishment and the energy necessary to sustain life. Food is culture, love, heritage, celebration, and more. Traditional Indigenous foods, in particular, hold a cultural context and meaning that permeate a strong history of soul, comfort, and language.

For many Indigenous communities, indigenous foods provide substance and also hold tales that are important to Indigenous culture and preserve identity, language, and tradition. For instance, an ear of corn is more than that; it represents a ceremony, an ancestor, and valuable stories that carry lessons about nourishing the self, the land, and how to treat one another with respect.

There is an abundance of diversity in food much like there is a vast diversity in nature (i.e., plants, animals, insects, etc.). Indigenous peoples celebrate(d) this diversity in their regional lands as well as the seasonality of foods and animals. Compare this diversity to our current global food system where only 12 plant and 5 animal species account for 75% of the food supply.1 How could this possibly be sustainable or healthy for humans or the planet? Not to mention a lack of variety is boring!! (More to come on how our food system impacts the environment in a future blog post). 

Indigenous communities understand the importance of stewardship and respect towards the land. Indeed, as seen in many other cultures around the world, a spiritual connection to the land and nature breeds love and respect which in turn inform how these cultures engage(d) with the natural world. Native agricultural practices are founded in agroecological practices – which are gaining traction in modern sustainability conversations. Agroecology is a method of farming that works with nature to mimic natural processes and relationships and preserve natural resources to improve equity and food sovereignty.2 A culture of respect and connection to nature and to food allow Native cultures to live sustainably. 

Like the lessons and expertise of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois, along with many other native communities which for centuries have planted “The Three Sisters” (maize, beans, squash) together. This trio of seeds was planted for good reason too as each of these crops thrive off each other and produce numerous ecological advantages from the resistance of pests, soil regeneration, and water retention for drought resistance while also providing a varied, and yummy, diet. Not to mention, consuming these plants together provides all 9 essential amino acids, complex carbohydrates, and essential fatty acids.3

Many indigenous plants the world consumes today (sunflowers, beans, squash, amaranth, melons, bananas, and potatoes) were domesticated and nurtured for over 1000 years using special cultivation techniques. The corn on the cob we eat today came from wild grass (teosinte) in southern Mexico. The teosinte was a thin and short wild grain with roughly only 5-12 hard kernels. This crop was originally grown for its seeds which were used for animal feed, while its fibrous husk was used to create materials from woven baskets to clothing. It took a considerable length of time and patience, 9000+ years to be exact, of careful selective breeding to transform and redefine the wild grass teosinte into the variety of modernized corn that exists today. Of course, we can’t ignore the more recent role of genetic modification in the evolution of many foods, including corn.  

The diversity and universality of the food we have today are all because of these Native cultures – saving seeds, preserving biodiversity, and passing on their wisdom with each generation. In fact, we can and should thank Indigenous peoples for preserving 80% of the world’s agricultural biodiversity.3 While crops like corn and the Three Sisters have contributed to the variety of the foods we eat today, we must recognize that they have been stolen from the hands of Indigenous people and communities. Colonization resulted in the tragic loss of Native peoples, native culture and teachings, native lands, and native foods. This, followed by decades of extortion, disrespect, and lack of humanity from government policies, resulted in the drastic displacement and disenfranchisement of Native peoples. The evolution and growth of modern agriculture (i.e. industrial agriculture) further contributes to the loss of biodiversity, Indigenous foods and lands, deforestation, water pollution, air pollution, overall connection to cycles of nature, and more. Furthermore, these negative environmental effects disproportionately affect the health and wellbeing of Native communities, low-income communities, and BIPOC communities. 

When considering the history of Indigenous foods, it is important to consider food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically and sustainable methods. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” Encouraging and supporting food sovereignty for all people can not only allow cultures to reconnect with sacred land, traditions, and foods but also increase food access, improve individual and community health, and improve the health of the environment. Supporting and granting food sovereignty can also expand traditional agroecological practices which in turn can improve human health, preserve biodiversity, improve the resilience of both people and the food system, combat climate change, rebuild soil, increase the nutrient density of food grown, safeguard culture and sacred practices, and create equity in the food system for all humans.      

This Thanksgiving, we hope that you’ll take a moment to be grateful for foods’ many gifts and its centrality to culture and connection to the land. We also hope that you feel inspired to learn more about the indigenous foods of your area and how you can incorporate them into your Thanksgiving celebrations and beyond (see tips below).   

We also encourage you to support local, agroecological practices by getting to know your farmers and food producers at farmers’ markets, joining a CSA that practices these methods, joining/supporting community gardens, or by planting your own organic garden (if feasible!). Even converting a small portion of your lawn or window boxes to growing foods, herbs, or indigenous and native foods could be a great way to celebrate and honor these gifts of nature.

Below are a few ideas for how you can honor and celebrate Indigenous Foods:  

Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with us to get support on your future journey to body and mind health.

 

Written by the Starkel Nutrition Work-Study student, Sara Parsons.
  1. Purdy M. Highlight on soil, biodiversity, organic, regenerative agriculture. Lecture presented at: Bastyr University; November 11, 2021; Kenmore, WA.    
  2. Purdy M. Ecological threats to and from food systems. Lecture presented at: Bastyr University; October 14, 2021; Kenmore, WA. 
  3. Purdy M. Agroecology, food sovereignty, food justice, and tapping into indigenous and traditional farming communities. Lecture presented at: Bastyr University; November 18, 2021; Kenmore, WA.
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