“I promote these ancestral foods so that we can really uplift those and recognize this ancestral wisdom that helped keep us alive for thousands of years before colonization.”
In this episode, Mariah Gladstone discusses the definition of food sovereignty and her involvement in the indigenous food movement. She talks about what individuals can do to incorporate more indigenous, pre-colonial foods into their diet to improve health outcomes, combat chronic disease, and prevent diabetes.
Mariah Gladstone is Blackfeet and Cherokee and lives on the Blackfeet Nation in Northwest Montana. She is the founder of Indigikitchen, an online cooking show that reteaches information about Indigenous food preparation.
Shireen: In this episode, Mariah Gladstone discusses the definition of food sovereignty and her involvement in the indigenous food movement. She talks about what individuals can do to incorporate more indigenous, pre-colonial foods into their diet to improve health outcomes, combat chronic disease, and prevent diabetes.
This episode is part of our series dedicated to addressing health inequalities in nutrition and diabetes for the month of January. During the series, we hope to educate listeners about how structural and cultural factors impact health care and nutritional practices. This month, we will bring in experts to discuss topics, including food sovereignty, the whiteness of the Mediterranean diet, reimagining Hispanic, Caribbean nutrition, and how public health food policy gives rise to chronic disease.
Podcasting from Dallas, Texas. I am Shireen and this is the Yumlish podcast. Yumlish is working to empower you, to take charge of your health through diet and exercise and reduce the risk of chronic conditions like type two diabetes and heart disease. We hope to share a unique perspective and a culturally relevant approach to managing these chronic conditions with you each week.
Mariah Gladstone is Blackfeet and Cherokee and lives on the Blackfeet Nation in Northwest Montana. She is the founder of Indigikitchen, an online cooking show that reteaches information about Indigenous food preparation. Welcome Mariah!
Mariah: Hi there!
Shireen: Glad to have you on. So I'd love to learn more about what drew you to become involved in indigenous food systems and the food sovereignty movement.
Mariah: It was a combination of things while I was doing my undergraduate degree. My mom was actually working on her master's and she was studying and researching food sovereignty as it came to community readiness within reservations in Montana. And that kind of introduced me to the entire concept of food sovereignty, but very far away from home in Montana.
And I was living in New York city at the time and I realized just how much I missed the foods that I grew up with. Things like wild race, things like bison, any type of wild game. And I started thinking about food in this context of these different types of cuisines. Of course, in New York city, I could get almost any type of food I wanted except indigenous foods. And I, of course, coupled that with being back home on the reservation in the summertime and being so far away from a grocery store, that my access to food was also limited. And then really starting to think about the foods that I did have available with the foods that I could find right outside the front door, the foods that my ancestors have been eating for thousands of years and what I could eat in the fresh meal without having to get in the car and drive 40 minutes into town.
Shireen: I love it. So help us understand what is the definition of food sovereignty.
Mariah: Yeah, food sovereignty, maybe kind of a new term for people. Especially when we're used to the term food security. And I would say food security is part of food sovereignty, but food sovereignty goes a little bit deeper.
So when I define it, I like to use the definition that was created by Livia Campesina, the peasants movement, which is a four pillared approach to food sovereignty. It requires that the food be one healthy. We want to make sure that the food that people have access to is able to provide for their basic nutritional needs, meet all the building blocks for what you need in your diet to support your daily activities,
Two, we want to make sure that it's affordable. Obviously, if the poorest people within our communities cannot access the food that is healthy, we don't have food sovereignty. Third, food needs to be culturally appropriate. And I think that that is obviously defined in different communities in different ways, but it is things that we see as food. The things that we in the United States see as food may be radically different from. Foods in other parts of the world. So I might be able to create a menu that is both healthy and affordable and based entirely off of insect proteins, but in the United States that may not be recognized as food. So it may not meet the definition of culturally appropriate, for example.
And fourth, the thing that really brings this concept of sovereignty into being is the ability to govern our own food systems, to regulate food, and safe food creation, whether it's through production, whether it's through healthy butchering, whether it's through the regulation of the antibiotics that we're allowed to give animals, whatever that may be, but the ability to regulate those systems and to implement food systems that are sustainable and resilient.
To really, to build off of that concept of sovereignty and recognize, especially as indigenous nations, we have the ability to write our own food and agricultural coats, and that is part of food sovereignty to be able to regulate our food safety and sustainability.
Shireen: So I wanna dig a little bit more, when you talk about culture. Can you elaborate on that and help us understand how we can think about food as resistance and food as culture?
Mariah: Yeah. I think that we know that there are foods that we grew up with that become ingrained within our identities. There are, of course populations that have experienced oppression. There is a tendency to mistake our oppression as our culture. And I see that in many cases in native communities, um, we were given rations when our traditional foods were taken away from us or hunted almost to extinction. And we developed foods like fry bread and Indian tacos from these rations. And so there is this strong association with fry bread, the survival food that is high in starches, and these fat, to mistake that for our culture and our identities, the same can be said about other foods that we've received as rations or in the commodity food program, the food distribution program on Indian reservations, um, commodity cheese, dry mill, all of these things that we associate with our indigeneity, which are in fact things that were given to us as survival foods. And so I'm trying to reimagine and revitalize that concept of indigenous food, because it is through that recognition of ancestral resilience that we can rebuild this cultural notion of food. And rather than talking trash about survival foods that helped our people exist today. I promote these ancestral foods so that we can really uplift those and recognize this ancestral wisdom that helped keep us alive for thousands of years before colonization.
Shireen: And what does it mean to decolonize food and medicine and re indigenize your diet?
Mariah: Yeah, I use this term re-indigenized because I think that there is a strength in recognizing this resilience, not in relation to colonization, but rather as this revitalization of ancestral knowledge, but also as a recognition that we as indigenous people are not trying to move backwards, but we're trying to move forwards, continue into the 21st century use ancestral wisdom that has been cultivated for thousands of years, but also use that to support ourselves today as modern people.
And so I love looking at the knowledge that we have had within our community. And rebuilding those in ways that make sense today. So I love, of course, using the modern kitchen, recognizing how we can prepare healthy elk roasts in InstaPot and have them cooked at the end of the day, when we get home from work and really incorporate this combination of ancestral recipes, ancestral foods with the lives that we have to live today.
I think that's super important for people to recognize that native people aren't trying to go backwards in time. We're not necessarily trying to undo all of the effects of colonization, but rather we recognize that we are existing within this colonial paradigm. And it's our responsibility to regenerate that information that has kept us alive and really to be able to use that as our stress.
Shireen: I want to tie in this concept that you're talking about to chronic disease prevention and management. So what I'm hearing from you is native American food traditions are largely ignored in the mainstream, sort of in the mainstream day-to-day and even broadly in nutrition. Do you think incorporating more indigenous pre-colonial foods into our diet can support chronic disease prevention and management? And if so, how do you see that?
Mariah: Yeah, it's no secret that eating less processed foods, more fresh foods. The diets that are low in empty carbohydrates and low in fats and sugars can really support healthy living that goes across the board with any community. There's of course, despite using a number of indigenous foods within our daily lives, people rarely recognize them for their origins, except it seems weirdly during Thanksgiving. Besides that it seems that there is a lack of integration of indigenous knowledge within the recognition of North American food systems. Two thirds of the world's food originated on turtle island in north and south America. We look at foods like corn beans, squash, tomatoes, peanuts, raspberries, blueberries, pecans, hazelnuts, these different foods, sunflowers, and so many different types of berries.
I listed a few of them, but there are so many foods that had their origins here that are incorporated into people's diets in a number of ways today but rarely are they talked about, of course, with those origins. But of course, anyone. examining the foods that have been grown or harvested in their area really helps invigorate that local knowledge. It helps connect them to their landscapes. And I also think besides just the nutritional aspect of eating fresher foods and eating less processed foods of eating local foods, which are often inherently fresher due to distance traveled, They also through that aspect of connection helped bring us closer to the world that we live in, help recognize the land, where we're on.
If you are eating fresh berries that grow in your area, you're not just getting the nutritional benefits of eating those berries, but you're also often outside picking berries. Getting to take in that natural sunlight, the vitamin D getting to see these other animals that rely on the berries for their support too. And not only do the foods take care of us, but we really are able to see how we are responsible for taking care of our foods as well.
Shireen: And it's such an interesting concept of, um, food taking care of us, but almost giving back to say we're taking care of foods as well. And it's that second part that for the most part, we don't have much connection to. Walk us through some examples of indigenous foods.
Mariah: I brought up some things. Of course. I love talking about the three sisters. And even though this is a podcast I'm wearing my three sisters earrings today, which are seeds from corn beans and squash. And I love talking about this concept because it is essential, not just as a physical polyculture that we grow, but also it is a recognition of this metaphor and balance and support that we can each offer each other as we go through our lives as well.
So corn, of course, if you have ever seen corn fields, you know, that corn grows and stocks, it grows tall and straight. Beans. If you've planted beans, generally recommend that they need some type of support system. So people generally plant these next to fences or make little bean poles or something like that. But corn can actually act as a support system for beans to climb up, to hang on to. The beans also are a legume, which means that they have nodules in their root systems that contain nitrogen fixing bacteria, which can help enrich the soil of the nitrogen that corn and squash really need to survive and produce.
And then squash, if you've seen a pumpkin patch, you know, that squash spreads out on the ground, it grows great big leaves and fines, and it takes over, but it stays pretty low. So it, she, it shades the ground from the sunlight keeps weeds from coming up and also the little hairs can prevent pests from really getting to the other plants. And so very, very different in shape, structure and in nutrition as well. We see beans, of course, relatively high end protein, corn, relatively high-end starches. We look at our squash, which has kind of a, almost sweet and sugary flesh, but also high protein seeds. And so the combination of these foods work really well together, corn beans and squash form a complete protein, but also they support each other physically.
And Chemically as well for nutrients enriching the soil there, the sustainable polyculture. And we use the three sisters, not just, as I said, to recognize this balance within our planting systems, but also as a metaphor for looking at our life and for really examining the ways in which we are responsible for supporting those around us, in which we play to our strengths. But also we can't do things alone. If we do things alone, we drain the nutrients for ourselves, for everyone around us. And we really have to rely on each other as a community. I think that is, I don't know. That's an example. I always like to think about, as I think about indigenous foods, this balance.
Of course there's dozens of animals that people traditionally hunted for or fished for or trapped. And with that examination of, you know, animal proteins, we also look at, you know, not just as foods that nourished us. our bodies, but also we look at using the entire animal. So not just as food, but also for hides, for shelters, for clothing, for warp, for all of these different things that we can get from animals, for glue, for tools, decoration, everything.
Shireen: And how can a return to indigenous food systems, help individuals and coming back to the chronic illness piece of it, really help those individuals who have chronic disease, including diabetes. And if you have specific examples, that would be great too.
Mariah: I, you know, I look at the foods that were traditionally in indigenous food systems and there is a very low-glycemic value for most of those foods. The foods that had a lot of those sugars are challenging for folks with diabetes, are foods that would either be available only certain times of the year, or very hard to obtain. And so in that we're of course eaten in small quantities. So maple syrup is an example that comes to mind because maple syrup, well, almost pure sugar takes a lot of effort to harvest and then boil down to get concentrated.
And so I'll use maple syrup in my cooking, but also with this recognition sugar is a gift and it takes a lot of work to get it, and it should be treated with that utmost respect, you know, taking things in that quantity, recognizing it as a gift, and something to be savored. There's also, you know, we look at foods like our Prairie turnips. So Prairie turnips were a root vegetable that Blackfeet people traditionally harvested. It's similar to a potato. But again, with a much lower glycaemic value, they're also very high in vitamin C. And so they are, this cool root vegetable, which some people ate raw. Some people would dry them out and so they could be braided together like a garlic braid, like you see dried and cured. So they would be braided, dried out and then could be rehydrated anytime throughout the winter. So thrown into a pot, turned into stew, and I look at these things like these healthy root vegetables.
Whether it's things like Prairie turnips, which is kind of a regionally specific thing or sweet potatoes, which of course sweet potatoes come in dozens of varieties as well. but have these lower glycemic values and really help balance those blood sugars out. I recognize sweet potatoes as, you know, this incredible agricultural knowledge that has come from South America and the ways in which we can substitute the white starchy potatoes that we're used to eating for these healthier alternatives to these foods, whether that's through turnips and carrots and parsnips and sweet potatoes or a cool Montana variety of potato I've been growing, which has huckleberry golds, which are purple on the outside and kind of Yukon gold colored on the inside. And they're known for their short seasons and low-glycemic value. But we love growing them here because they grow well in our short climates or a short growing season and kind of offer that lower spike in blood sugar.
I also find some things really interesting, like, serviceberries which also go by the name juneberries or Saskatoon berries. And we have a ton of them here. Blackfeet people would traditionally pick gallons and gallons of these bags and then dry them out until they were essentially rock hard and then they could be rehydrated like anything else and eaten. We would actually eat them in Berry soups, but the berries themselves have compounds that actually help balance blood sugar.
And so I know that pharmaceutical industries look at these things and they're like, how do we extract this compound? And put it in medicine for diabetics? And it's like, or you can just eat berries. Because they're delicious and you can get the same benefits without having to buy it in pill form. Food has the capacity to really treat a lot of those, especially diet related illnesses and consuming things consciously and looking at the foods that we have around us every day can help balance.
Shireen: Couldn’t have said it any better. I truly stand behind that power that food has. I feel like it is yet to be entirely unlocked, even for us to understand it entirely. So where do we go from here? What can people do to adopt a more indigenous diet, their health? What will it take?
Mariah: One of the things I think people can do is learn about the area they're living in. Recognizing the foods that have been eaten there for thousands of years, and that takes a shape and different ways. Of course, in the Midwest, uh, up in the great lakes region, we see wild rice as such, such an essential food that is still eaten very, very widely, but also recognizing, you know, the benefits of those foods, the nutritional value of these different foods.
We look at foods like black walnuts, like pecans, pecans are a food that the word actually comes from a Pottawatomie word. And it was through the displacement of Pottawatomie people that they found themselves farther south from the nut trees that they knew the hickories and the black walnuts. And instead into Kansas and Oklahoma. And there were these new nut trees and they didn't have a word for these new nuts. And so they just called them nuts, which was pecan. And it was of course this mast fruiting cycle that produced. Tons and tons of nuts and certain years, and the ability of those nuts to provide enough protein and fat to support communities. So that in years where there were these mass fruiting cycles, families could resist sending their kids to boarding school because the alternative of course, if you did not send your kid to boarding school was that rations would be cut. And so examining these foods, learning about these foods, not just as the pecan pie, but also as the story of resilience and resistance and how we have navigated these food systems.
I think that everyone should learn about the plants in their area. I say this both as someone that cooks food, but also as an ecologist a recognition of the amazing diversity of wild greens of berries, root vegetables, I think are one of the most interesting things, but also challenging to identify and harvest because of course the edible part is underground. But I think that the more we learn about these things, the more we can build strong food systems that emphasize local resilience and community benefits. Uh, I think that when we buy foods from local farmers, from local small farmers, uh, regardless of if they're indigenous origins or not, we recognize that strength in eating foods close to home and supporting our community and also needing those fresh foods that help improve our health, getting food straight from the soil, this diversity of the species that we're eating as well.
So it's all part of this balance, but I think also if you have knowledge to share about local food systems, about edible plants in your area, about hunting, about how to clean and filet a fish, whatever it may be share that knowledge because the more that we share, the knowledge that we have, the more we can build communities that understand where their food comes from and that in turn encourages us to take care of that food system.
Shireen: I love it. I love it. And I feel like this conversation could certainly continue Mariah. But with that, we are to the end of the episode. At this point, I would love for our listeners to know how they can connect with you and learn more.
Mariah: Sure. Thank you. You follow my work on Instagram or Facebook or YouTube at indigikitchen, or just go to indigikitchen.com. We have lots of videos posted alongside the recipes to make the information super accessible for folks and really share and connect.
Shireen: Well with that, thank you again so much for your time. To those listening, head over to her social media or our Facebook or Instagram. And we have a question for you. What is your favorite indigenous food? Head over to our Facebook at Yumlish and let us know. We will see you there after the episode and Mariah, thank you again for your time.
Mariah: Thank you so much.
Shireen: Thank you for listening to the Yumlish Podcast. Make sure to follow us on social media @Yumlish_ on Instagram and Twitter and @Yumlish on Facebook and LinkedIn. For tips about managing your diabetes and other chronic conditions and to chat and connect with us about your journey and perspectives. You can also visit our website Yumlish.com for more recipes advice and to get involved with all of the exciting opportunities Yumlish has to offer. If you like this week's show, make sure to subscribe so you can hear more from us every time we post. Thank you again, and we'll see you next time. Remember your health always comes first. Stay well.