Manataka American Indian Council




Health Watch... 


Indigenous Foods -

'Health' Foods from

our Past are Making a Comeback!

By Annette Waya Ewing

Now that we know that consumption of our modern processed foods contribute to obesity and illnesses, including cancer
and diabetes, it makes sense to take a look at foods we ate back when these conditions were rare.

Jane Brody , in the New York Times writes: On the Arizona desert, the desirable food ingredients are found in edible parts of such indigenous plants as the mesquite (mes-KEET) tree, cholla (CHOY-a) and prickly pear cactus, as well as in tepary (TEP-a-ree) beans, chia (CHEE-a) seeds and acorns from live oaks. Tribal elders speak fondly of these one-time favorites, which in recent decades have been all but forgotten as hamburgers, fries, soft drinks and other fatty, sugary, overly refined fast and packaged foods gained favor. Even those Indians who still rely heavily on beans and corn are today consuming varieties that have little or none of the nutritive advantages found in the staples of their historic diet. For example, the sweet corn familiar to Americans contains rapidly digested starches and sugars, which raise sugar levels in the blood, while the hominy-type corn of the traditional Indian diet has little sugar and mostly starch that is slowly digested.

Similarly, the pinto beans that the Federal Government now gives to the Indians (along with lard, refined wheat flour, sugar, coffee and processed cereals) are far more rapidly digested than the tepary beans the Tohon O'odham once depended upon. Indeed, their former tribal name is a distorted version of the Indian word meaning "the Bean People."

When Earl Ray, a Pima Indian who lives near Phoenix, switched to a more traditional native diet of mesquite meal, tepary beans, cholla buds and chaparral tea, he dropped from 239 pounds to less than 150 and brought his severe diabetes under control without medication. In a federally financed study of 11 Indian volunteers predisposed to diabetes, a diet of native foods rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates kept blood sugar levels on an even keel and increased the effectiveness of insulin. When switched back to a low-fiber "convenience-market diet" containing the same number of calories, the volunteers' blood sugar skyrocketed and their sensitivity to insulin declined.

This is a hybrid bean developed by American Indians of the southwest to withstand drought.  They are a fast growing, high yielding bean to add to the garden and a delicious food with many healthful attributes.  They range from brown to white in color, and are best eaten in dried, rather than fresh form.

Tepary beans have more protein and higher fiber than ordinary beans, and a lower glycemic index (41-44) so they are a great energy food for dieters and diabetics.  They digest slowly-so you get sustained energy for up to 6 hours after eating them.  A small study has suggested that they also have very potent anti-cancer properties-which has led to their use in Mexico as part of cancer treatment regimens.  However, larger, more comprehensive studies are needed before any responsible claims can be made.

They may be used in any bean recipe-their flavor is mild and delicious.  Soak overnight and cook for a few hours, until tender.  They also cook nicely in a crock pot.  Add onions, carrots, celery, and a chunk of buffalo or venison for a tasty stew.

A good source for the beans is an Ebay store called, Native Foods.  They also sell top quality Hopi blue corn, which can be planted or eaten.

Healthy and surprisingly delicious.for maximum nutrition, grind your own whole seed blue corn in a (cleaned) coffee grinder. (Store-bought corn meal is made with the most flavorful and nutritious part, (germ) removed.) Add a spoonful to a cup of water and simmer for a few minutes to create Gvnohenv (Guuh-no-henuuh)-Cherokee corn drink. (Called Sofkee by the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians) This soothing drink was traditionally served to visitors.  My husband swears it helped him get over the 'flu last month. Fresh ground corn meal will go rancid quickly-refrigerate any leftover cornmeal for up to a week.

Remember Chia pets?  Well, studies have shown this ancient indigenous food is worth bringing back as a dietary staple, if not a coffee table topiary!

Chia seeds are a complete source of protein, are digestible without being ground, have more Omega 3 than flax seed, digest slowly and help maintain blood sugar levels--so are perfect for diabetics and dieters, absorb 9 times their weight in water-and help the body to remain hydration and electrolyte balance, contain high levels of alpha-linoic acid for heart and eye health, and are being studied for anti-cancer properties.

Native peoples have traditionally used Chia gel (made by soaking the tiny seeds in water) to treat insect bites, prostate problems, constipation, body odor, respiratory infections, and upset stomach.  They also used it as a low volume high energy food-and tales are told of warriors subsisting on handfuls of the seed for weeks at a time.

The ground seeds are higher in calcium than milk and also contain bone-building boron in significant amounts-so they may be a perfect compliment to your osteoporosis treatment regimen.

It has a nutty taste, and is easy to add to boost the nutrition and water content of many foods.  Just add 1 part seeds to 9 parts cold water, stir well, then let sit a bit (10 minutes is sufficient) and use a whisk, or shake (if mixed in a jar) to break up lumps.  It will form a gel, and keep in the fridge for a week.  You can add it to smoothies, milkshakes, yoghurt, juices. Add the plain or ground seeds to peanut butter to boost its nutrition.

From review of a recent book on Chia: In the Magic of Chia, authority James F. Scheer details the seed's abundant nutrients: calcium, amylose (a slow-burning starch helpful for hypoglycemics), a vast array of vitamins and minerals, and an unusually good ratio of omega-3 oil to omega-6 oil. The book reintroduces this wonder food to the modern palate, with numerous tested recipes for using chia to upgrade the nutritional value of hamburgers, soups, salads, breads, fruit drinks, and much more. Included is the never-before-told story about the twenty-year program to domesticate the wild chia and, for the first time in modern history, grow it in large enough quantities to supply the U.S. and world markets.

The foods mentioned in this article are not (yet) common stock on your grocer's shelves, but can be easily ordered online.  More recipes and research can also be found by "Googling".


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