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Honoring Native Foodways keeps dietary traditions alive

November 23, 2018
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In this Nov. 8, 2018 photo, students, faculty, staff and members of the community learned about traditional indigenous cuisine during the recent Honoring Native Foodways event held at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke in Pembroke, N.C. The event featured indigenous chef Sean Sherman, whose cookbook titled “The Sioux Chef” won the James Beard Award. (Jane Haladay/The Robesonian via AP)

PEMBROKE, N.C. (AP) — With the Honoring Native Foodways event marking its 10th year, Professor Jane Haladay celebrates the growth in knowledge of indigenous foods over the past decade.

“It started out very small, as sort of a pre-Thanksgiving, community potluck,” she said. “Community at that time meant basically students, faculty and staff. It’s grown into a much larger event and it has become a community potluck also for the community outside of the campus.”

Haladay is a professor in the Department of American Indian Studies at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She is one of the organizers for Honoring Native Foodways, an educational, potluck-style event focused on indigenous foods.

According to Haladay, the four main goals of Honoring Native Foodways are to celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November, to educate those who participate about the vast diversity of indigenous foods of the Americas by tasting them, to emphasize the health benefits of indigenous foods and to share how people might incorporate some of these foods into their diets.

“We continue to emphasize the theme of traditional American Indian foods and their foodways, their histories, their diversity of those food, the fact that people are eating those commonly today but may or may not know those foods are traditional to native peoples of North America,” Haladay said.

Although the event marked its 10th year on Nov. 8, Haladay believes the harvest is honored by indigenous people year-round.

“I say every time native people sit down to eat, it’s Thanksgiving,” Haladay said. “The term Thanksgiving is not from an indigenous origin, but the idea of sitting down and recognizing and acknowledging the food happens more than once.

“Traditional native cultures have always had first-foods feasts or harvest feasts or some kind of ceremonial marker of the abundance of their harvest or their foods; but it varies from tribe to tribe and region to region.”

Foods that represent the indigenous cultures include earthy themes, such as wild rice and beans; mushrooms; game meats, such as bison and venison; and vegetables, such as turnips, sweet potatoes, corn and squash.

Sean Sherman, a critically acclaimed, award-winning indigenous chef and guest at Honoring Native Foodways, showcased some of these cooking themes during the Honoring Native Foodways event. Sherman has been cooking across the United States and Mexico for the past 30 years, and has become renowned internationally in the culinary movement of indigenous foods. His main focus has been on the revitalization and evolution of indigenous foods systems throughout North America.

His cookbook, “The Sioux Chef,” contains recipes that only use ingredients native to North America. This means no flour or wheat-based products, dairy, beef, chicken or pork. The book recently won the James Beard Award.

“Indigenous food to me is food that rises from the plants and animals, the ecosystem of a specific place that has been there for millennia,” Haladay said. “And that doesn’t mean it existed without human cultivation and interaction because it does.

“A lot of the indigenous foods we have today and that native people have had historically require some kind of human interaction to be cultivated.”

The indigenous food culture does come with its health challenges. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Type 2 diabetes is most common in American Indian and Alaska Native people.

“Native communities have a lot of high levels of diabetes, high-blood pressure and some cancers,” Haladay said. “A lot of these diseases are linked to foods.”

Haladay said this is because of historical policy changes that have been forced out of native traditions.

“Earlier 19th century policies that work to exterminate native people’s foods were conscious attempts to also subdue native people and bring them under control, so there’s a large history behind why a lot of these indigenous traditional food sources and foodways practices have declined or why many people don’t know about them and practice them,” Haladay said.

Haladay believes getting back to the basics, to traditional native cuisine, is the answer to healthier indigenous communities. Honoring Native Foodways was established to bring awareness of the fact that the foods still are here today.

“We should just go back to the simplest stuff,” she said. “The health benefits of these foods are amazing.”

Haladay and the Department of American Indian Studies recently decided to continue honoring native foods throughout the year on campus by establishing an Honoring Native Foodways Cooking Club, which meets at the Chancellor’s Residence kitchen once a month.

“We just chat and cook, and at the end of the hour we have five or six dishes that are prepared, and we make a plate and sit down and eat together,” she said. “That is the monthly Thanksgiving.”

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Information from: The Robesonian, http://www.robesonian.com

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