Traditional Foods Principles

Valerie Segrest often encounters people who want her to tell them what to eat. Instead, this native foods educator and registered member of Washington state’s Muckleshoot Indian Tribe says she works to “help people see the wealth of knowledge they come from, and use that to make healthier choices.” It’s a doubly empowering way to reconnect with cultural traditions and change food habits at the same time.

When it comes to the diet-related health problems in native communities, Segrest says, “you could take America and put it under a microscope. That’s what’s happening on every reservation.” In other words, diabetes rates are high, and access to healthy food — not to mention traditional foods — can be dicey at best.

The answer, Segrest believes, is a move toward the traditional foodways that have slipped away from “a culture now consuming a diet that is very superimposed.”

Segrest teaches a course at Northwest Indian College called “Honor the Gift of Food,” which approaches healthy eating through eight traditional food principles — ancient concepts that will be familiar to those who have heard them reincarnated as foodie gospel: eat locally and seasonally; eat organic, whole foods; honor the food web/chain; and, my favorite, “cook and eat with good intention”:

Reflect on what you consume, as well as how you consume your meals. Eating is a reminder that we are human … The way we eat is just as important as what we eat. We are frequently eating while on the go and hurrying on to the next task. This takes the pleasure out of eating our food, and it does not allow sufficient time for our body to relax enough to savor and digest, leaving us hungry for more.

Eating with intention also involves rethinking some of the ethnocentric diet mantras drilled into us as Americans — for instance, the idea that fat is anathema to good health. “In the Northwest, traditional Coast Salish families would eat a lot of fat,” Segrest explains. “It makes sense because the landscape here is rich with fish and shellfish.” In her classes, Segrest differentiates between the healthy fats that once made up close to half of Coast Salish people’s daily nutrient intake, and the hydrogenated oils and trans fats prevalent in the “superimposed” diet they consume now.

Segrest’s class explores practical ways to put traditional food principles in a modern context, asking “How do I grocery shop with my ancestors?” For instance, she explains, elk meat could be used in lasagna instead of beef. The camas bulb, a traditional prairie plant and native food staple, is hard to come by now that so many of our prairies have disappeared, but white beans make a good alternative.

Whatever your cultural background, this can be a more effective, and often simpler, approach to healthy eating than trying to parse the complex language of carbs, calories, and nutrition science. Across the board, our ancestors generally ate better than we do, since they lived before the advent of mass-market processed food.

In addition to teaching, Segrest has co-authored a book called Feeding the People, Feeding the Spirit: Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture, and coordinates the broader Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, which incorporates educational and food-producing gardens, hands-on workshops like a traditional technology series on fishing and hunting, articles in the tribal newspaper, and traditional foods feasts. She is also a Food and Community fellow at the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Segrest feels excited about the acceleration of the good food movement, but points out that its focus on small farms and ranches often leaves out native traditions. “We’re hunters and fishers,” she says. “This new food system we’re trying to build — its abundance and its scarcity depend on how we honor the old-world knowledge of this land. If we want to create diverse diets we have to look at what was grown here pre-contact.”

Changing her community’s relationship to food, Segrest says, means practicing “a way of living that presses us to look back.” (SOURCE)

“Traditional Foods Principles,” which address the physical and spiritual health of individuals and communities in conjunction with the wellbeing of the land.

1. Food is at the center of culture

2. Honor the food web/chain

3. Eat with the Seasons

4. Eat a Variety of Foods

5. Traditional Foods are Whole Foods

6. Eat local foods

7. Wild and organic foods are better for health

8. Cook and eat with good intention
By Valerie Segrest (Read More)

VIDEO Revitalizing Northwest Coastal Indian Food Culture

Responses to "Looking back to see ahead: One woman’s quest to bring back Native American food traditions"

  1. Joy Redhand ONeill says:

    She is right on target. This is not only good for us, it's good for everyone. We all have terrible diets in America today. It's good to see our people leading the way. I'm on the other side of the country but I give her all the support she needs, spiritual or otherwise.

  2. Rita Taddeucci Raffanti says:

    Kudos, Valerie! You have my total support. This approach is desperately needed in regards to ALL Native tribes - they ALL need to go back to their roots and go back to eating the healthy traditional diets their ancestors ate.

  3. Annika says:

    I just had this argument today. You rock..this is so massively important. My thoughts with you!

  4. Joan Roepstorff says:

    It only makes sense. Life now days makes it harder to do. I can tell you that eating because the food is around is a lot different than eating because you need the nourishment to stay alive, eating for this reason allows you to rejoice and be thankful for that plant or animals life. It's hard to be thankful for your food when you know how that animal was raised or killed or what types of chemicals are being used in your vegies these days. Don't stop, Thank You.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Good to see Native women teaching this. I grew up eating seafoods, clams, salmon, sea bass, crab, etc. Deer, elk, buffalo, many wild berries, like Huckleberries, sallal, salmon, blackcap and many more. We grew all our own foods and processed all our own foods. I am healthier by far then most young today. I would like to see an on-line course produced and maybe a local area teaching program for Native foods in the Portland/Vancouver and Willamette Valley area.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree with most all of what is said here--and I definitely agree with the statement by Christal Quintasket--I'm just wondering why she died so young-at only 48 years old--seems that the way that she took care of herself would've allowed for her to have lived much longer-being that 48 isn't very old at all--especially being that she followed the diet that she hopefully really did...

  7. Anonymous says:

    Love this...Bravo!!

  8. Unknown says:

    Too awesome!!!! Also to the Anonymous who questioned about Christal Quintasket, She died of the flu. Many Natives have trouble fighting off the influenza virus and die of secondary infections (pneumonia). I myself have always had trouble with it. I lead a very healthy lifestyle and take great precautions not to get sick. However when I do it always lands me on antibiotics due to pneumonia.

  9. Anonymous says:

    You are what you eat.

  10. “Indigenous people in the past were much healthier, and did not suffer from the same epidemic of poor health that pervades these communities today. They subsisted on a macrobiotic diet based around the consumption of the whole grain of the Americas - Corn.”

  11. Anonymous says:

    With white text it is impossible to print anything from your website.

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