KU historian touts benefits of foods indigenous to Americas

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Devon Abbott Mihesuah

LAWRENCE – In academic circles, Devon Abbott Mihesuah is known as a historian with indigenous roots who researches decolonization strategies and advocates traditional diets for Native Americans.

In her popular History of Indigenous Food and Health course at the University of Kansas and at some Native American gatherings, she is sometimes known as the woman who regards fry bread as lethal.

Both an historian and a novelist focused on Native American topics, Mihesuah is the Cora Lee Beers Price Teaching Professor in International Cultural Understanding at KU. She is enrolled in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and is also a descendent of Chickasaw people.

Fry bread, the deep-fat-fried flat bread popular at Native American gatherings, is peripheral to her research, but it epitomizes Mihesuah's commitment to finding strategies within cultural traditions and historical records to help restore health and fitness among Native Americans. Her books reference traits and resources that enabled Native Americans to thrive before the colonization of the New World, or the Americas.

"The past affects the present, and maybe there are answers in the past," she says, noting the need to reduce the high rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease among today's Native Americans.

"The effects of contact and subsequent colonization were numerous and complex, and we cannot point to a single reason to explain our predicament," Mihesuah wrote in her 2005 book, "Recovering Our Ancestors' Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness."

Pre-colonial lifestyles were active and dependent on hunting, gathering and, for many, gardening – especially raising corn, beans and squash. With colonization and its history of mistreatment and subjugation, Native Americans lost not only ancestral lands and lifestyles, but many also lost cultural connections. Mihesuah attributes some Native Americans' choices of fast or processed food and soft drinks to the "Boarding School Syndrome, or BBS."

"BBS is the result of generations of young Natives being forced to endure racist teachings at boarding schools that told the students their languages, religions, clothing, hairstyles, world views and foods were inferior," she says.

With the publication of her gardens book, Mihesuah broadened her decolonization strategy to establish the American Indian Health and Diet Project, a website devoted to recovering the health of indigenous peoples.

"The goals are to bring to light the health problems faced by indigenous peoples, to understand how we came to our unhealthy situations and what we can do about them," Mihesuah notes. "You will find no fry bread recipes here!"

Made from wheat flour and deep-fat-fried, fry bread originated around 1864 in an attempt to stave off starvation by the Native Americans who survived a march of more than 300 miles from Arizona to a concentration camp near Fort Sumner, N.M.

Mihesuah encourages eating foods that sustained Native Americans before contact with Europeans, who introduced sheep, goats and cattle as well as wheat, sugar and salt to the New World.

This fall she will challenge her readers to a second "Week of Eating Indigenous Foods" and will also encourage an indigenous foods Thanksgiving. The 2012 week will be announced on her blog. Reception to her first challenge to eat only pre-contact foods drew favorable comments from throughout the United States. The week honored her Michigan colleague, Martin Reinhardt, Anishinaabe Ojibway, who established a Decolonizing Diet Project that devotes an entire year to eating only foods indigenous to the Americas.

In 2013, she hopes to promote two weeks of eating indigenous foods – first the late spring as gardens begin to produce and again in the fall as garden harvests are ending.

Gardening and preserving food was tradition for most tribes. The Choctaw calendar, for example, has 13 months, most of which identify a time or season for gathering, planting, harvesting, cooking or preserving foods.

Eating indigenously means no processed foods or foods that originated in the Old World. But the indigenous foods list is extensive, varies by region and includes wild turkey, venison, salmon, catfish, potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, cranberries, hickory nuts, mushrooms, maple syrup, cacao beans and much more.

"The 'Americas,' as we now call them, has provided the world with at least half the plants of foods we know today," Mihesuah says.

Her current history projects include a multi-volume history of "Surviving Indian Territory," an account of those surviving relocation from ancestral lands to what would become Oklahoma. Mihesuah is also researching the history of a Cherokee traditionalist, Ned Christie, who resisted statehood and was killed after being falsely accused of murdering a U.S. deputy marshal.

To date, she has written 15 books, including two edited collections, and received 13 book awards. Her most recent novel, "Document of Expectations," won the Oklahoma Writers Federation 2012 Best Fiction Book Award. Her 2009 history, "Choctaw Crime and Punishment, 1884-1907," won both the Oklahoma Writers Federation Non-Fiction Book Award and the Oklahoma Historical Society Best Book on Oklahoma History Award.

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