To walk into the central gathering space of the Potawot Health Village in Arcata, a multi-tribal health clinic, is to be made instantly aware of the concept of traditional native food as medicine. “Got Acorns?” reads a poster. “Got salmon?” “Got seaweed?”
Built, administered and owned by American Indians, Potawot is at the front line of a national resurgence among native peoples to address the link between the loss of ancestral native foods and disproportionate rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases.
California is home to more American Indians and Alaska Natives than any other state. Diabetes is a major community health issue for the 107 federally recognized tribes which live here. The statistics are sobering: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from 1994 to 2004 the diabetes rate doubled among Native Americans 35 and younger. Teens fared even worse. For 15 to 19 year olds, the diabetes rates soared by more than two-thirds.
“We’re trying to re-establish the traditional ways we thought about food,” explained Paula “Pimm” Allen, the clinic’s traditional resource specialist, who comes from a long line of respected Yurok and Karuk healers and cultural practitioners. “Taking care of ourselves, our families, the community and the environment all are interconnected.
Potawot Health Village opened in 2002 to serve Yurok, Tolowa, Wiyot, Hupa and Karuk Indians who live within a 5,000-square-mile territory encompassing most of northern Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The village also has five satellite clinics, including one in Weitchpec, an isolated Yurok village along the Klamath River that has yet to receive electricity.
The complex is organized around a central “wellness garden” composed of native medicinal plants, fed by rainwater captured from roofs. It is all encircled by a 20-acre restored wetland, along with two miles of walking trails wending their way though a “basket garden” of native grasses used for weaving. A 2½-acre organic garden and orchard supplies produce for the clinic’s seasonal farmers' market, where native cooking demonstrations are part of the repertoire.
Cultural traditions are a route to healing, Allen explained. “We were forcibly disconnected from our food, just as we were with our language and our culture,” she said. “People who are connected to community are more likely to take care of themselves.”
Potawot was one of 17 Indian organizations nationwide chosen to receive a $100,000 grant from the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program. The clinic is using the money to develop a comprehensive Food as Medicine program for patients. In conceptualizing the grants, the CDC conferred with tribal leaders.
“They said culture is the source of health,” said Dawn Satterfield, team leader of the wellness program at the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation. “They made that connection very clear.”
Although the reasons for the devastating impact of diabetes on American Indians are complex, many experts believe that historical trauma – including the forced abandonment of traditional practices and native habitat – have been contributing factors.
Mariana Leal Ferreira, a medical anthropologist and associate professor at San Francisco State University, said government policies – such as forcibly taking children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools – had deleterious, long-term effects. Children were taught to abandon native language and culture, wrenching entire generations away from skills like hunting, fishing and gathering.
In Northern California and elsewhere, access to native foods has become both an environmental and human rights issue. Karuk elders recall eating salmon three times a day.
Joy Sundberg, a 79-year-old resident of Trinidad Rancheria and a Potawot board member, recalls when the skies over Humboldt and Del Norte counties “were black with ducks,” she said.
“When I was young, it was disgraceful to be fat,” she continued. “We always had deer, and smoked salmon was a staple. There were acorns and fish and berries for every season.”
Everything changed within her lifetime. Slim and vivacious, Sundberg is nevertheless dealing with diabetes. “You’ve got a McDonald’s here and a Hooters there,” she said. “It’s like Mothers Against Drunk Driving; it’s going to take dedication to change.”
At Potawot, about 500 schoolchildren a year visit the demonstration garden to learn about traditional food ways and healthier eating habits. Allen and her colleagues are working on adapting ancestral foods to contemporary life, emphasizing healthy organic foods that can be found at the supermarket, such as grass-fed beef and sustainably harvested fish.
Allen recently was diagnosed with diabetes herself. She notes that bad food choices often reflect the day-to-day pressures on families, especially in a down economy. “As a parent, you’re stressed out, trying to get the bills paid,” she said. “Do you buy cauliflower for $6 and cook for an hour? Or zap something in the microwave for 99 cents?”
To Allen, making healthier decisions, including growing fruits and vegetables in the backyard, is an embrace of both culture and wellness. “We are trying to make people aware that food comes from people and places,” she said. “We need to be eating food that represents our values.”
Editor's Note: This post was excerpted from Brown's original story, which you can read here.