by Abaki Beck
The following article is an excerpt from “Ahwahsiin (The Land/Where We Get Our Food): Blackfeet Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Contemporary Food Sovereignty,” a report printed by Blackfeet community organization Saokio Heritage in May 2017.
The preservation and revitalization of traditional Blackfeet foods and medicines is up to all of us. It is clear that though the U.S. government tried for generations to remove us from this knowledge through overt war, boarding schools, and placing us on reservations, it never disappeared.
In these modern times it is probably not possible to eat a completely “traditional foods diet.” It is time consuming to gather enough plants and meat to last throughout the year, some of the plants that Blackfeet ate are now far away from the reservation, and our tastes and flavor preferences have changed. Another question to reflect on is what is “traditional”? Would a truly traditional diet mean not eating bannock bread or potatoes – foods that we grew up loving, and recipes that were passed down from our grandmothers?
It is significant in itself to incorporate certain aspects of traditional food gathering and preparation. There are three essential reasons to incorporate traditional foods into our diets and communities: to revitalize Blackfeet cultural knowledge; to improve community health by integrating more local plant foods; and to continue to use and protect the environment around us. Based on interviews with elders and knowledgeable community members, here are suggestions and first steps to making our community healthier and our culture stronger.
- Food: Traditional foods and medicines can replace what you already eat. Sarvis berries, gooseberries, and chokecherries can replace blueberries or other fruits, and can be cooked traditionally, like in berry soup, or frozen and used in pancakes or muffins.
- Medicine: You can integrate root and herbal medicine into your health care regime. Instead of buying peppermint tea and other medicines, consider gathering peppermint and making the tea yourself. Many of these can be taken on a daily basis to help regulate your health. For example, you can drink huckleberry tea on a regular basis, to help regulate blood sugar. You can also rub alum root on your hands and arms up to three times a day to help with bone pain. Alum can also be used for people with arthritis.
- Exercise: Gathering wild plants, hunting, processing plants and meat, and preserving plants and meat for future use all require physical activity. Exercise is an important part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
- Purchase: An easy way to incorporate traditional foods and medicines into your diet is to purchase them in stores. While it is not the traditional collection method, it is an important first step for those interested in introducing more traditional foods into their diets. It is also a good option for those who may not have much time or access to transportation to collect and dry the plants themselves. Many Blackfeet root and herbal medicine (particularly teas like licorice, peppermint, and huckleberry) can be purchased in well stocked grocery stores like Wal-Mart or health food stores.
- Advocate on the tribal level: Advocate for the tribal government and organizations on the reservation to do more to make traditional foods available. At a minimum, the Blackfeet own a bison herd and they can begin providing bison meat to elders on a regular basis.
In addition to integrating traditional foods into our lives on a personal and familial level, there are steps the tribal government and tribal community as a whole can take as well. The suggestions we have compiled include ideas from our interviewees – all older people who live and grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation. Support of traditional foods and traditional ecological knowledge will provide a myriad of benefits to the community beyond health and cultural revitalization. Integration of affordable traditional foods into the product lines at Glacier Family Foods, the tribally run grocery store, for example, will benefit the reservation economy and provide more people with jobs in hunting or gathering foods. Creating a system in which hunted meats are provided to poor children or elders will reduce hunger and address poverty. Below, please find suggestions from our interviewees:
- Sell locally hunted wild game and locally processed bison at the tribally run grocery store Glacier Family Foods. As one interviewee noted, “There’s so much wild meat on our land that it wouldn’t hurt to give some away. And a lot of people would gladly go harvest that to give it to the children and elderly. That way no one goes hungry.”
- Develop more robust food safety laws to increase tribal food production. In other areas of the country, tribes are burdened with laws under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Though this act does a lot of good in terms of protecting consumers by increasing regulations on food processing, it burdens some tribes that want to use traditional food production techniques, or do not have access to industrial level kitchens. Some tribes, like the Salt Water Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona which is working on a traditional seed bank, are responding by creating their own food safety laws. The Blackfeet Tribe could similarly develop advanced food safety laws to sell bison meat or wild game in our grocery store.
- Start a large community garden that will help to feed the most needy people on the Reservation, particularly elders and young people. This can also be a place of nutrition and health education. The Blackfeet Community College already has a garden that grows corn, summer squash, carrots, celery, and other vegetables. BCC encourages others in the community to start their own gardens by providing seeds and plants at their People’s Market. However, we should also remember that gardening and farming are colonial, not traditional Blackfeet, ways of food production. Though gardens provide healthy and locally produced foods, they are not how the Blackfeet historically produced food.
- Provide and support regular education opportunities on both nutrition and health, as well as on traditional food gathering and recipes. One suggestion mentioned quite frequently by interviewees was the need for nutrition classes for young and new parents.
- Make fast food less available. Fast foods are so cheap and widely available that they become the food that people easily reach for. The Navajo Nation introduced a 2% tax on junk food to curb obesity in 2014. They also removed a 5% tax on fruits and vegetables to incentivize people to eat healthier. One issue with this, however, is that junk food is often one of the few cheap foods available. The tribe would have to insure that healthy foods were inexpensive and widely available before increasing the price on fast foods.
There are also ways we can support food sovereignty on a systemic level, beyond our families and individual tribal community. Here are suggestions on steps we can take to further propagate traditional ecological knowledge:
- Community members should pursue degrees in science, technology, and health; fields that will support the study of food sovereignty and traditional ecological knowledge. It is crucial for our community members to have expertise in these subjects so we can develop institutions, laws, and programs that support Blackfeet food sovereignty.
- Support and implement further studies and projects on food sovereignty. The community should continue to record and make available the ecological knowledge of Blackfeet elders and community members. Beyond this report, further research, projects, or classes should be implemented in the community to educate people on and engage people with traditional foods and medicines.
- Advocate for policy change on the national level. Pay attention to food sovereignty, environmental issues and policy on a national level; climate change and environmental stewardship has a deep impact on the local level.
As one interviewee succinctly stated, “If the next generation doesn’t come and see how what you collect looks, then they won’t know. It’ll end with this generation.” It is up to the tribal government to make wild game and locally gathered foods and medicines more available at the tribal grocery store, at schools on the reservation, and through food distribution programs to those most in need. It us up to those with knowledge to continue using it and making efforts to pass it on to their children and grandchildren. It is up to us – the children and grandchildren – to ask our elders about gathering plants, and if they don’t know, to educate ourselves and our families. Our ancestors’ knowledge must not end with us, but instead, grow stronger.
Ahtone, Tristan. “Tribes Create Their Own Food Laws to Stop USDA From Killing Native Food Economies.” May 24, 2016. Yes! Magazine. http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/tribes-create-their-own-food-laws-to-stop-usda-from-killing-native-food-economies-20160524
Morales, Laurel. “The Navajo Nation’s Tax on Junk Food Splits Reservation,” April 8, 2015. NPR News. http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/04/08/398310036/the-navajo-nations-tax-on-junk-food-splits-reservation