Back to the beginning

Letter to the Editor
3/27/09

By now the economic recession has somehow affected nearly every family in America, one way or another. Amid concerns about a major shift in government control, the fairness of corporate rescue plans, and the average family’s financial burdens, a new zeitgeist is emerging that is a nod to indigenous knowledge and a reconnection to the natural world. A new frugality, as it is being called, may produce an ideal environment for educating others about indigenous concepts of sustainability.

Last week, first lady Michelle Obama made news when she, along with some local elementary students, planted the first garden on White House grounds since World War II. While many can relate to a mother’s instinct to feed her children, very few are as influential as Mrs. Obama at this moment. Planting a garden might seem like a small gesture, but it signals a basic consciousness on the part of America’s first family that is encouraging.

Mrs. Obama intends to promote healthy eating and locally grown food as a way to address soaring rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. It’s an admirable endeavor, one that must have many Native people thinking of their own small farms or gardens. Not only do their high-quality crops sustain families and communities, they are often sown with gratitude and respect for each plant’s medicinal value. Several tribal prevention programs have been successful at re-introducing small gardens to diabetics. Their experiences are worth sharing with the first family, and with the nomination of Dr. Yvette Roubideaux to lead IHS, it seems likely that a significant connection can be made.

A new zeitgeist is emerging that is a nod to indigenous knowledge and a reconnection to the natural world.


For most of his life Haudenosaunee scholar John Mohawk extolled the virtues of the slow food movement, a worldview that appreciates food as medicine for mind, body and spirit. The idea that we can be nourished completely by the bounty of creation is catching on with a mainstream public increasingly concerned about the safety and environmental impacts of industrial agriculture. Although tough economic times may force families to spend less on groceries, there is also a growing awareness of the havoc cheap fast food can cause our bodies. A recent segment of 60 Minutes on CBS featured Alice Waters, the so-called “mother of slow food.” Waters, a renowned chef and restaurateur from Berkeley, Calif., focuses her advocacy on flavor and the benefits of locally-grown food.

But indigenous knowledge goes far beyond “green” eating. It acknowledges a familial relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world. Consider this part of the ancient address, Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen (“Words before all else”), recited by the Haudenosaunee to food plants: “Since the beginning of time, the grains, the vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the plant foods together as one and send them a greeting and thanks.” It is a relationship defined by humility, one that has sustained Native peoples since time immemorial.

A remarkable educational opportunity exists at this moment, for Indian communities as well as American society in general. Indian people are encouraged to plant and harvest food on their lands and continue to give thanks in their Native languages. It seems that as more Americans consider frugal living and different ways to eat, they may well be open to appreciating, practicing and encouraging real sustainability in their communities.

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