The land we now know as the United States was by no means ever “virgin soil.” For thousands of years, American Indians have sustained politically and culturally vibrant societies that are as diverse as they are dynamic. Today, these societies are fewer in number and lower in population by millions than they were 500 years ago.
Contrary to popular belief, the genocide of indigenous peoples did not occur simply because of their inability to resist European pathogens and American military aggression, but also because invading populations destroyed their food systems, leading to starvation, ecological disruption, and devastation. Indigenous people were simply not able to recover.
That’s what the authors of a new book explore in Decolonizing the Diet: Nutrition, Immunity, and the Warning From Early America. A historian and a scientist, respectively, Gideon A. Mailer and Nicola E. Hale manage to weave together a cohesive narrative of how the forces of nutrition, immunity, environmental change, disease, settler colonialism, and many other tangential factors have influenced the general health of Native American people, from the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras to the present.
Ancestral health is a trending topic today, but often the books lack depth. Those who are looking for a serious, analytical look at precolonial health might want to pick this up. This is not a guide to eating with an indigenous twist, with recipes that incorporate traditional foods, but more a history of precolonial food systems and nutrition. A thorough and detailed analysis of historical indigenous eating is what makes this book unique and valuable.
Region by region, with respect to the vast diversity of indigenous cultures and groups, the authors cover hot topics in health like the gut microbiome, ketosis, genetics, immunity, and more. They are careful to weave in the emerging scientific theories without necessarily agreeing to them entirely, noting that research for much of nutritional science is still in relatively early phases.
The chapter “More Than Maize” digs into the paradoxes of American Indian diets most people don’t know. We already understand that different varieties of corn have been prevalent in indigenous diets for several thousand years and are considered a traditional food. But the authors use recent developments in plant dating to offer a precise timeline of when corn spread from Mesoamerica and became domesticated in different regions of North America. They show how the intensification of corn impacted indigenous health, for better and for worse. For example, densely populated societies such as Etowah, Moundville, and Cahokia were likely able to expand, thanks to a stable food supply. However, increased corn consumption often meant fewer micronutrients as corn replaced other foods in their diet.
Today, American Indian communities are suffering from “diseases of modernity” at alarming rates.
The following chapter digs into the relationship between nutrition and immunity from 1492 to 1750. From the Southwest to the Great Plains, to New England and beyond, millions of indigenous people died since that first contact, and the populations never fully recovered. Indigenous genocide was the result of many factors, such as warfare, massacres, and disease. In other parts of the world, such as Europe after the Black Death, populations were able to recover from massive loss within 100 years because food systems remained stable. But in indigenous North America, the scarcity of once-prevalent foods led to weakened immune systems and the inability of populations to recover from newly introduced diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, influenza, typhus, cholera, and scarlet fever.
In 16th-century Florida, in regions where the Spanish established control, indigenous populations were banned from fishing and hunting. They were moved into missions and forced to rely on corn and grains. This diet caused deficiencies in vitamin B12, iron, and protein, again leading to compromised immunity and eventually death from disease. Populations in the Southwest suffered similarly, from decreased fertility caused by the depletion of amino acids and folate. In Pueblo communities, turkey farming and maize cultivation were destroyed by Spanish encroachment.
While many books tend to generalize indigenous precolonial cultures and food systems, Mailer and Hale make it clear that no two indigenous communities lived, ate, or reacted to colonialism alike.
The authors are in most ways respectful of indigenous tradition and perspective (they address the harm of romanticizing or generalizing cultures throughout the book), however, some indigenous people might argue that they take for granted the Bering Strait theory—a concept that is accepted in scientific circles yet largely contested in indigenous belief systems.
Back to the title-driven expectations of “decolonizing” the diet. Today, American Indian communities are suffering from “diseases of modernity” at alarming rates (for example, the rate of diabetes in Native American populations is more than three times as high as all of the United States). Government dietary guidelines have not worked well to improve the health of Native communities, Mailer and Hale argue, and many of their recommendations, like eating plenty of dairy and processed grains, have further harmed indigenous health. Incorporating and revitalizing traditional foods is a worthy effort for those communities. But Native people are still deprived of adequate nutrition, and their real need is to incorporate whatever foods give them that, whether from different parts of the world from their own regions.
Correction: August 24, 2018
An earlier version misstated the rate of diabetes among Native American populations.
Chelsey Luger is a journalist from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is an contributing editor for Indian Country Media Network and co-founder of the grassroots initiative Well for Culture.