Native Village 
Youth and Education News

November, 2012

Native American Ancestors' Diet Part of Study and Challenge
Condensed by Native Village

Michigan: Martin Reinhardt is taking the "eat local" movement to a whole new level. To experience his Native ancestors' lives, he and a diverse group of volunteers are adhering to a diet of foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region in the 1600s.

The Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP) is more than halfway through it's year-long challenge. For those who might like to try it, Reinhardt invites the general public to follow the list of DDP eligible foods and seasonal exercise plan for one week, Nov. 2-9.

The idea for this study was sparked by the 2010 First Nations Food Taster at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where Reinhardt is a faculty member. The event is held each November as part of Native American Heritage Month.

"I had participated several times and it had always been in the back of mind how closely related the food we serve at these events is to the foods our ancestors would have eaten in a pre-colonial context," said Reinhardt, who is an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. "There is a deep historical interconnectedness, or spiritual kinship, between indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands that makes the act of eating indigenous plants and animals much more personal. We had to decide how we were going to execute this and how we would find our foods."

Months of discussions at NMU's Center for Native American Studies blossomed into the DDP.  Reinhardt developed three criteria for foods eligible for the diet:

hose defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as native to the region, such as whitetail deer and morel mushrooms;

Non-native foods introduced by indigenous people before 1600, including corn, beans and squash;

Plants and animals derived from those that were here in pre-colonial days such as domesticated turkeys

Genetically modified organisms were excluded.

NMU students helped develop a master list of eligible foods along with preparation tips and recipes. A sample menu features

Dried wild rice and corn with wild rice milk and maple sugar
Sunflower, dandelion and mushroom-baked whitefish with hazelnut, black cherry and nodding onion salad
 fried duck with cattail hearts and huckleberries.
Maple-flavored grasshoppersm pumpkin seeds, fried white pine bark, fruit and nuts.

Reinhardt and 25 adult volunteers promised to follow a diet consisting of 25-100% indigenous foods. A few, including Reinhardt and Treasa Sowa of Munising, Mich., embraced the plan 100%.

"There are social issues, like having to refrain from eating at functions or bringing my own food places," Sowa said. "But that hasn't affected my determination. I've lost 23 pounds and there's a general sense of well-being that's hard to describe."

A few participants dropped out. Those who remain log their eating, exercise and share videos, photos, audio and keep written journals. They also have quarterly health checkups, meet for cooking demonstrations and share potlucks to discuss their experiences.

Martin Reinhart:

"I felt anxious at first, wondering if I would be able to do this. It has now become my norm. I've found ways to access, store and prepare foods. I've lost nearly 30 pounds, my cholesterol and triglycerides are down to a safe zone and I've had no flare-ups of the ulcerative colitis I've had for years. But this isn't a cure-all and I'm not a snake oil salesman by any means. I continue to struggle with arthritis. I can't say I'll be 100 percent DDP the rest of my life, but there are foods I've tried that I will continue to eat and others that I'll never eat again. I'll be glad to have tomatoes, peppers and cheese back in my diet after this. I really miss pizza. It may not be the healthiest thing, but I crave it.

"On a cultural level, I've totally enjoyed this opportunity. It has allowed me to reconnect with my ancestors in a way I hadn't before, other than through ceremony or special times when we'd have these foods. Now I get that on a daily basis. On a legal/political level, I've invoked my treaty rights to forage food on U.S. Forest Service Land and to fish and hunt. That's a point of pride for me as a tribal citizen. It connects me to pre-colonial sovereignty. That may be hard for non-tribal citizens to relate to, but I'm keenly aware of it because of who I am and because of my profession."


The year-long study ends on March 24, 2013. A final report, DDP recipe book and documentary will follow. Reinhardt obtained funding for the project from an NMU faculty research grant, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Cedar Tree Institute.

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