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Book Review

Indigenous perspectives on food, health and medicine

Yusuf Progler

A People's Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living edited by Gregory Cajete. Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, NM, USA, 1999. Pp: 283. Pbk: $14.95.

The popular American television and film series Star Trek takes place in a world where people live in space, sometimes for their entire lives. Their environments are entirely man-made, including atmosphere, food and water. There is no need for agriculture and animal-husbandry, since all food is produced artificially in devices known as 'replicators.' All the trekker need do is request a meal verbally and it quickly appears in the device, complete with utensils and garnish.

Health is similarly monitored by mechanical devices in the science-fiction netherworld of the Star Trek future, where there is no need for the human touch in medicine because machines can diagnose and treat patients more quickly and efficiently. The proper drug or procedure is similarly provided by mechanics, and physicians are reduced to mere technicians.

Sounds far-fetched? Not really, when one takes the time to think through the implications of living the modern western lifestyle, especially as demonstrated in consumer cultures such as north America, Europe and Japan. Living in these places, one could easily assume that the vision of a high-tech solution to food and medical problems is on the near horizon. It is difficult to find any other explanation for the waste and shortsighted planning of the western food and medical industries.

The Star Trek vision of the future only makes sense if one is already deluded by western civilization's myths of progress and technological utopia. But to clear-thinking people everywhere, it is seen as nothing more than a bribe. The fact is that the earth and its resources are finite; when the resources run out it will spell the end of human civilization. This realization has sparked debates about 'sustainable living.'

Indigenous peoples worldwide have entered into this discussion by drawing upon their own traditions, which at their best have always been about living within the means of the earth's provisions, not beyond them, as is the western norm. Native peoples have also been rediscovering their nearly lost traditions of medicine and agriculture, and collectively they are both challenging the west and offering viable alternatives.

In A People's Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living, Gregory Cajete, a Pueblo Indian professor of education in New Mexico, has assembled a collection of essays about native traditions on health, environment and agriculture. The collection follows his previous work on indigenous education, includingLook to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education (1994) and Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model (1999). Cajete now offers practical examples to complement his educational theories.

Cajete begins by summarizing his educational and ecological vision as elaborated in previous works, discussing Native American approaches to the "theology of place" as a "window into natural affiliation," a guiding principle through which human beings can explore relationships with plants and animals. He briefly outlines Pueblo history and the impact of the west, and then moves to a discussion of "indigenous ecology in a post-modern world." Cajete insists that Native peoples live a 'dual life' which "resembles a kind of schizophrenia in which people constantly try to adapt themselves to a mainstream social, political, and cultural system that is not their own." The goal of the rest of the volume is to heal this schizophrenia by elaborating on livable and workable indigenous lifestyles.

Cajete has assembled an impressive array of activists, doctors, farmers and scholars for A People's Ecology, including Gilbert Arizaga, an M.D. who has developed indigenous sciences of dermatology as a window into internal stresser, Brett Bakker, a field manager for Native Seeds Search and a pioneer in reclaiming native heirloom seeds, and Enrique Salmon, founder of the Baca Institute of Ethnobotany and supporter of research on the medicinal, nutritional and spiritual values of plants.

In their chapter on the "Daybreak Farm and Food Project", Yvonne Dion-Buffalo and John Mohawk describe a program of revitalization of white corn usage. They begin by outlining the history of corn and colonization, noting that when Spanish Christian conquistadors invaded the Americas, they found a rich nutritional culture based on myriad varieties of corn. However, as a result of colonization and native schizophrenia, many of these varieties of corn are extinct and native health has declined because of 'domesticated foods.' Even cooking traditions have been altered, suggest Dion-Buffalo and Mohawk, who reflect on the Spanish preference for cooking with lard and the impact of this and other pig-products on indigenous culinary arts, noting that "conquest and colonization initiated a legacy of food exchanges and adaptations that continue to the present."

The Daybreak Farm and Food Project works with organic growers on Indian reservations who are cultivating native corn and other indigenous crops, particularly to develop networks of food stores and restaurants off the reservation in an effort to create a broad-based market for native corn. The objectives of the project include: conducting seminars on the ecology of white corn; encouraging native growers to switch to white corn; and establishing an organic certification program to introduce native corn into national markets. Dion-Buffalo and Mohawk conclude that "Native American food crops are significantly closer to wild foods than are most domesticated crops" and that "learning to cook such foods and to make them a regular part of people's diets is increasingly seen as a way to better health."

The volume also includes chapters on native and traditional foods of the Southwestern Pueblos, relations between indigenous foods and health, poetry and spiritual meditations on food and culture, rituals and practices of traditional, folk and holistic medicine, permaculture and indigenous architecture, and natural food retailers as activists for sustainable living.

As the Star Trek culture of the west continues to short circuit, and as more and more people realize the benefits of a simple and wholesome lifestyle, those Native traditions that have developed sustainable habits of living and thinking will become increasingly important for building viable futures in a world no longer dominated by western modernity. Gregory Cajete and the authors in this volume have provided an informative and useful set of readings to help us to imagine workable alternatives; their book should be required reading for all peoples trying to chart a course independent of western technological modernity.

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