Sacred substances: Food as our way to give thanks

There are specific seasons during the year when Indigenous foods and lifeways give homage to the gifts of their environment. Indigenous foods and culinary practice is a new movement in Indian country based on ancient knowledge. Traditionally, amo...

There are specific seasons during the year when Indigenous foods and lifeways give homage to the gifts of their environment.

Indigenous foods and culinary practice is a new movement in Indian country based on ancient knowledge. Traditionally, among Indigenous peoples food as offerings were given at prayer time to give thanks for many things. The thanksgiving acknowledgement(s) included harvest, solar, lunar recognitions, birth, puberty, marriage, birthdays, naming ceremonies, death as well as thanksgiving for political, social, and spiritual accomplishments (this list is not exhaustive). At the very core of thanksgiving in this way, Indigenous people who were being honored and those making the offering received blessings of good will. In our way, it is a response to our moral universe and in keeping with creating a positive awareness of the landmarks in our lives. It just is the right thing to do.

Part of the desire to re-create ancient knowledge with modern artistry is a call to Indigenous people and their health. As certain epidemics continue to plague Indigenous people, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension that are interrelated to our diets, we have revisited the importance of traditional foods. Thus the need to reconstruct how one needs to live in the current time takes focus.

I would like to begin with corn, also known as maiz and many other names in Indigenous languages. We know corn to be a staple, a vegetable, a carbohydrate and one of three sisters (corn-beans-squash) as well as an ingredient compound for non-food products.

Larry Hilaire, a wildlife biologist for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, states corn originated in the Americas and was first cultivated in the area of Mexico more than 7,000 years ago, spreading through North and South America. The 250-plus varieties are all "Indian" corn. In our Indigenous cultures, corn was always present. In many creation stories, it was a symbol of when women and men were created, when they were taught to cultivate the human being. Corn goes back to a time when living things were first put into motion and thus was always considered sacred; not just as a food but as a symbol of fertility and life.


Among the diverse teachings of Indigenous people, meat, vegetables and fruits were more than just food-they were a life force as exemplified by their use and the respect given to the spirit-energy-life force that was found in their makeup.

For example, the buffalo-in the beginning it brought a sacred pipe to the human beings via the White Buffalo Calf Pipe maiden. The buffalo continues to have sacred meaning. The Lakota are also known as the buffalo people and utilized every part of the buffalo for their survival.

Wild rice, better known as Mahnomen, also serves as a "sacred" for the Anishinaabe people. It also has its roots in the migration and creation of the Ojibwe people. One will find wild rice at most feasts and gatherings among the Ojibwe, as it serves as an offering and as a symbol of their land based identity and survival in Minnesota and the northern woodland plains.

Before biomedicine, diabetes and the treatment for it came from food and how it was prepared. My maternal grandfather had diabetes at a time when little was known about the disease. My grandmother took care of his disease primarily from watching his energy levels or lack thereof. She utilized teas, grains and proteins. At that time, most food was organic and I believe that is what helped him live as long as he did.

Many traditional, Indigenous people make offerings of their food immediately after having prepared it, usually this prayer is done silently and independently of others. The intent is to provide and express a form of love and nourishment that is healing to everyone.

As I have done in previous columns, I asked some others to speak about what education and learning mean to them.

Tondalia Marie Brown States

"Yá'át'ééh! Shí éí Tondalia Marie Brown- States yíníshé. Nááshtézhí díne'é éí níshtłí. Ashįįhí ba shíshchíín Kínłíchíí'níí da shí'cheíí. Kíyaa'áanii da shí'náálí. Shíma doo Shízhé'é éí Christina doo Gary Brown wolyé. T'ááłá'í shítsílí éí Michael Brown wolyé. Shá Hastíín éí Timothy States wolyé.T'ááłá'í shí'ałchíní éí Nizhóní States wolyé. Bemidji dę́ę́ shíghan. Bemidjí State University adi yinishtą'. Ahé'héé hagoónéé.


"Nindinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! Tondalia Marie Brown- States indizhinikaaz. Nááshtézhí díne'é éí níshtłí. Ashįįhí ba shíshchíín Kínłíchíí'níí da shí'cheíí. Kíyaa'áanii da shí'náálí indoodemag. Diné'tah indoonjibaa. Bemijigamaag indaa. Bangii eta nindoojibwem. Nimwendam ayaayaan omaa noongom. Mii iw minik waa-ikidoyaan. Miigwech bizindawiyeg."

Hello. My name is Tondalia Marie Brown-States. I am the Zuni Clan born for the Salt People Clan. My maternal grandfather is the Red House People Clan and my paternal grandfather is the Towering House People Clan. My mother and father are Christina and the late Gary Brown. I have one younger brother, Michael Brown. My husband is Timothy States. We have one daughter named Nizhóní States. I am Diné (Navajo) born in Phoenix, but call Crownpoint, N.M. My mother's family is from the Whitehorse Lake and Crownpoint area and my father's family is from the Rock Springs and Farmington (Shiprock) area of New Mexico. My little family currently resides in Bemidji. My husband and I will be graduating in December from BSU. I am majoring in the Indian Studies program wand my husband will be graduating under the Creative Writing Program. (He is my favorite author and a very gifted writer). I am Diné, a mother, wife, daughter, sister, niece, aunt, granddaughter, best friend, godmother, colleague, and lifelong student.

What is the earliest education experience you remember?

I don't remember an actual educational experience at school, but I remember the day I first learned to tie my shoes. It was the summer before I started kindergarten. My dad was driving our truck and I was small enough to fit by my mom's feet on the floor. She tied her shoes and let me play with the laces on our drive. Almost 30 miles into our trip I did it. By the look on her face I could see how truly happy she was for me. I think only a mother's love can feel this type of happiness. Her continuous support for my education and lifelong learning has been instrumental in my life.

How has western education affected you?

Being raised in a small town on the reservation, I was ready to leave and become educated. The plan was to then come back and help my people. At least that's what I thought until I had the mandatory talk with my school's guidance counselor. I told him I wanted to go to the University of Arizona and major in aerospace engineering. In so many words, he told me to go to community college near home and stay put. I was already aware of the world. I had lived in Phoenix and I knew that culture shock would not be an issue for me. So I applied and was accepted to the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona. The downside was that I soon realized physics was not my friend. I left the College of Engineering, but fell in love with the Indian Studies program. Up until 2015, the University of Arizona only offered the Indian Studies program as a minor. So I ended up changing majors to psychology with a minor in Indian Studies. I finally reached the end of my program and walked in graduation, excited to move on with my life. I distinctly remember meeting with my advisor on three separate occasions before graduation, and verifying I was done and OK to graduate. A couple weeks after graduation, I got a letter which informed me that I was three credits short of completing the degree requirements. I was furious and decided to take a small break. First my high school counselor discouraged me from trying to achieve great things, and now my college advisor had given me wrong information. I had always been on the honor roll, but always had this feeling I wasn't given the same type of education compared to someone who came from a whiter, privileged area. For example, our high school-which was 90 percent Diné (Navajo) students-we did not do the 'traditional' dissection of the frog. Touching anything dead is taboo and against Dine traditional values. In college, during an anthropology class, the teacher's assistant brought out bones from a recent dig-I panicked because there was no warning and being around these things could possibly get me sick, according to our taboos. I explained to the teacher's assistant that it was against my traditional values and I received an F for the assignment not being complete. She frankly didn't care and I felt like I was the one in the wrong. I was raised in a Christian environment but yet we were taught to respect our culture and taboos.

Growing up, the education I received from my parents and grandparents was always about pushing to achieve my dreams, and to always set high goals-to be the first college graduate in our big family. The small break went from two semesters to six years. Now, seven and half years later and with an awesome Native counselor and Native teachers I am finally at the end of my first journey and majoring in what I originally wanted to do.

As person living in two worlds what words of wisdom would you like to offer?


I literally live with the two worlds in my home. I am full-blooded Diné (Navajo) and married a wonderful bilagááná (white) man going on 10 years. We adopted our little girl when she was 9-days-old and she adopted our racial statuses. So she is officially half Diné and half White. She looks like our own child and she absolutely cannot wait for the day we adopt again. My husband and I have been through a lot these past years. Here in Bemidji, I experienced what other Indians go through every day and the racial divide that can be overwhelming. I cried so much when I came here (not because I missed my family-believe me I do) but how I was treated as an Indian. My words of wisdom would be to take some time out of your day and learn something about the local tribes in your area. Find out answers to questions like, "Why do the Indians not want pipelines here?" or "Why does the word R*dskins offend them?" or "Why are the Indians using the term 'Idle No More?'" In the words of Louis C.K., "When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don't get to decide that you didn't."

Did you know?

According to the American Diabetes Association (2004),

• There is a 2.2 times higher likelihood for American Indians and Alaskan natives to have diabetes compared to non-Hispanic whites.

• 68 percent increase of diabetes from 1994-2004 in American Indian youth aged 15-19.

• 95 of American Indians and Alaskan natives who have diabetes have Type 2 diabetes.

• 30 percent of American Indians and Alaskan natives have pre-diabetes.

• Furthermore,it is estimated by the year 2050, one in every three American Indians will have diabetes.

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