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Native American ancestors' diet part of study and challenge

October 24, 2012
Northern Michigan University
A diverse group of volunteers has committed one year to eating foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region in an effort to replicate the Native American diet prior to colonization.

Martin Reinhardt is taking the "eat local" movement to a whole new level that is rooted in history. In an effort to closely replicate his Native American ancestors' way of life prior to colonization, he and a diverse group of volunteers are adhering to a diet consisting of foods indigenous to the Great Lakes region and a complementary exercise regimen They are more than halfway through the one-year Decolonizing Diet Project (DDP). Recognizing that others might be curious to try it, but unable to commit for an extended period,

Reinhardt invites the general public to follow the list of DDP-eligible foods 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."

Discussions ensued over the following months at the NMU Center for Native American Studies and blossomed into the DDP. The geographic parameters were set -- states and provinces surrounding the Great Lakes -- and a timeline of the early 1600s established to reflect when colonization began to occur. Reinhardt developed three criteria for foods eligible for the diet: those 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 prior to 1600, including corn, beans and squash ("the three sisters"); and plants and animals that have since derived from those that were here in a pre-colonial context, such as domesticated turkeys bred over the years to have white feathers and plumper thighs and breasts. Genetically modified organisms were excluded.

NMU students helped to develop a master list of eligible foods that is posted online, along with preparation tips and recipes to maximize variety. A sample menu featured dried wild rice and corn with wild rice milk and maple sugar in the morning, a lunch of sunflower, dandelion and mushroom-baked whitefish with hazelnut, black cherry and nodding onion salad and an evening meal of fried duck with cattail hearts and huckleberries. Snack options include maple-flavored grasshoppers or pumpkin seeds, fried white pine bark, fruit and nuts.

Reinhardt recruited about 25 adult volunteers representing a mix of ages, gender, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. They agreed to follow a diet consisting of 25-100 percent indigenous foods. Several opted for the lower end of the spectrum because they thought it would be too life-altering to venture higher. Others settled in the 50-75 percent range. But a few, including Reinhardt and Treasa Sowa of Munising, Mich., embraced the plan 100 percent.

"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 and exercise and share reflections via video, photos, audio and written journals. They have quarterly checkups to monitor key health indicators. The group also meets periodically for cooking demonstrations and potlucks to discuss their experiences. The goal was to determine not only whether the diet improves health, but also what kind of social and legal/political barriers are encountered. Reihardt weighs in:

"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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Materials provided by Northern Michigan University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Northern Michigan University. "Native American ancestors' diet part of study and challenge." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 October 2012. <>.
Northern Michigan University. (2012, October 24). Native American ancestors' diet part of study and challenge. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 28, 2023 from
Northern Michigan University. "Native American ancestors' diet part of study and challenge." ScienceDaily. (accessed November 28, 2023).

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