Martin Reinhardt has spent the last seven months stepping back in time. His destination is pre-colonial America. His vehicle, food.
Reinhardt is a professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University and an Anishinaabe Ojibwa citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. In 2010 he got an idea for a unique research project: What would it be like to spend a year eating only the pre-colonial foods his ancestors ate?
“How would we access the foods? How would we be able to identify them in nature? What would it do to our bodies? Would it even be possible?” he asked.
To answer these questions, Reinhardt devised the Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP). In March 2012, a diverse group of study participants began restricting all, most, or a significant portion of their daily food intake to the indigenous plants and animals of the Great Lakes region. Subjects undergo regular checkups to track their progress.
While sticking to any diet can be a challenge, Reinhardt says the first hurdle in his study was determining what they would actually eat.
“When you go out for other ethnic dishes, you kind of know what they are,” he said. “When it comes to American Indian food, we really don’t have much of an opportunity to see that in our daily lives. You can’t order the indigenous platter. You don’t see the American Indian aisle in the supermarket. It’s kind of a hidden area of cuisine.”
To create his master food list (available online along with a number of test driven recipes) Reinhardt focused his attention exclusively on the Great Lakes region.
Starting with the plants and animals determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be truly native species, researchers compiled a variety of ingredients that would seem pretty exotic to most Americans—elk, duck eggs, cattail hearts, and morel mushrooms, to name a few.
The study also includes some plants brought to the area by tribes who originated from beyond the Great Lakes. But Reinhardt set a strict boundary with imports that emerged after the early 1600s.
“We’re very purposeful in how we labeled this project. It’s a decolonizing process,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re trying to send everybody home from where they came from. We’re just trying to figure out where we can identify what is indigenous, and what is truly accessible for a human being that is indigenous to this area.”
To this end, the diet even shuns modern agricultural developments. Participants eat both wild and domestic turkey, but not birds adulterated with additives and chemicals. Corn is on the menu, but not if it is genetically engineered.
For all the native foods he’s identified, Reinhardt admits it is still a rather narrow band on the readily available culinary spectrum. But he says that participants have worked hard to make the most of these regional ingredients.
“You can’t order the indigenous platter. You don’t see the American Indian aisle in the supermarket. It’s kind of a hidden area of cuisine.”
—Martin Reinhardt, professor of Native American studies, Northern Michigan University
“Take the pumpkin, for example,” he said. “We’ve used the seed for flour; we’ve used them to create pumpkin seed milk; we used pumpkin seed oils; we eat roasted pumpkin.”
Participants have struggled with giving up culinary convenience and variety for the sake of the project, but Reinhardt says the process has allowed him to connect with his ancestral homeland in a much deeper way.
“We’re certainly not all expert hunters now, or expert gardeners,” he said. “But I think compared to the general population we are, you could say without a doubt, much more aware of the world around us by using the medium of food.”
While others have attempted similar studies of native regional cuisine, Dr. Devon Mihesuah says the DDP offers the most extensive examination she has ever seen.
“I think what Marty and his group are doing is very significant,” she said. “The data that he is compiling and the experiences that they are having—this is something people are going to want to take a look at.”
A Choctaw historian, and a Humanities and Western Civilization professor at the University of Kansas, Mihesuah is perhaps best known in culinary circles for her book, Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness, which tied with Martha Stewart and Maya Angelou in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Eating for Health
According to Mihesuah, indigenous food is not only historically relevant, but essential to the health of modern people. She blames the unprecedented rise in obesity, diabetes, and other health epidemics among tribes and nations on the abandonment of traditional foods.
“One way to decolonize is to reclaim your health,” she said. “Doing this through foods proves to be the kind of thing that most people could manage, provided they really want to.”
Evidence for Mihesuah’s insights can already be seen in the research. More than seven months into the experiment, Reinhardt notes promising developments.
“Folks who are more committed to the diet are already seeing better health statistics,” he said. “We’re seeing decreases in cholesterol, decreases in triglycerides. We’re seeing peak vitamin ranges. We’re seeing healthy weight loss. In some cases, we’re seeing hip and waist size reduction.”
Until the project is finalized in March 2013, specifics aren’t available. But Reinhardt can point to clear improvements in his own health. So far he’s lost 37lbs, and the ulcerative colitis he’s endured for years hasn’t flared up once since the experiment began.
For those who would like to get a better taste for the DDP, Mihesuah invites indigenous people and non-natives alike to participate in a mini challenge she calls the Week of Indigenous Eating, Nov. 2–9.
While even a week restricted to indigenous foods may sound daunting, Mihesuah says it’s really an opportunity for discovery.
“What people need to do is just explore,” she said. “The purpose of the week is to get back to your tribe and your culture.”
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