Minding the Indigenous Mind
I have a beautiful 8 x 10 black and white picture of my mother and father positioned on an unpainted wooden side table in my living room. The picture was taken in front of my grandma Nellie Yellow Bird’s old house when my mom was 19 and my dad was 20. Mom looks like a model with her thick, wavy black hair, and her well-defined cheekbones and flawless, smooth skin. I’m not sure what the occasion but, she is wearing a 1940s style tea dress with high heels. She has a beautiful, soft, serene smile on her face. Dad is wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt, a white tee shirt underneath, and Levis. He is exceedingly handsome and has thick black hair that is combed back to the left. He has a big grin on his face and his eyes are closed; possibly a polite and humorous protest at having his picture taken.
I’ve looked at the photo many times and what I’ve noticed most is the glowing, good health that radiates from both of them and how fit they look. My mother said she weighed 115 pounds when the picture was taken and guessed that my dad weighed about 145 pounds, which is about six pounds more than I was when I graduated from high school. When I asked my mother about how she managed to keep herself at this weight she said we ate a lot different than we do today; we also ate much less and we were much more active. She then joked that, “if we wanted to eat fried chicken we had to chase them around for a while and after we caught them we were too tired to eat!”
In this column I wanted to share with you some of the diet and lifestyle “secrets” that I believe kept my mother and father healthy, disease-free, strong, happy, and filled with a sense of wellness. My mother is still alive at age 86 and is doing well, despite her having diabetes for the past 46 years. She remains optimistic, has a sense of purpose, a good sense of humor, loves to learn new things and visit with others, and leads a very prayerful life. I’m convinced that had she remained on her original diet and continued her active lifestyle, she could have easily passed 100 years in a very healthy condition.
My father passed away at age 72 from complications related to diabetes. But, I now know that it wasn’t the diabetes that killed him. Diabetes is only a symptom of the sickness that is created by eating the Standard American Colonized Diet. My father, like many in his generation, transitioned from a healthy traditional diet to one that is overloaded with bad fats, unhealthy carbohydrates, processed, packaged foods, and sugary drinks and desserts. If my father had continued to eat and live as he did as a young man, I believe that he could have made it well into his nineties without any chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.
What My Mom Ate – Meat Protein and Raw Milk
When I asked my mother a bit more about what she ate growing up she replied, “We ate what we could get from our gardens, from the animals we raised, the berries we picked, and the wild game we hunted or fished. We didn’t eat very much store bought foods since we could raise or get our own and we didn’t have a lot of money. A lot of the people lived like this back then; maybe that’s why we didn’t have diabetes or obesity like we do now.” One thing that she made very clear is that they did not eat meat all of the time or for every meal. In fact, she said “there were a lot of meals that we ate that were meatless. Sometimes my mother would tell us to go gather eggs when we got back from school and we would have roasted squash, eggs, and other vegetables for dinner.”
When she did eat meat it included a variety of domestic and wild creatures: “We raised cattle, pigs, chickens, turkey, ducks, and geese. We also ate wild fish and game like deer, duck, geese, pheasants, and sage grouse; and we ate a lot of fresh chicken and duck eggs. We also canned deer meat, pork, beef, and chicken that we used during the winter months.” All of these foods are standard proteins in the Paleo diet and are healthier than the non-Paleo meats you get at the local grocery store. The meats that my mother ate were leaner, had more vitamins and nutrients like beta-carotene, and were higher in omega-3 fatty acids (good, healthy fats). Because they came from organic, wild, and free range sources, the animals were not stressed or mistreated and their meat did not contain antibiotics or synthetic hormones.
One of the protein foods she ate that is not on the Paleo list is cow’s milk. However, she grew up drinking raw milk from cows that were clean, healthy, stress-free, and pastured-raised animals that she knew by name. I asked her if she ever got sick from drinking raw milk and she replied, “No! None of us ever did. We always milked our own cows and drank the fresh the milk; it tasted really good and we made fresh cream and butter from it.” (Both cream and butter are included on the Paleo).
Raw milk became the boogeyman some years ago with the claim that it was dirty and caused disease. Both claims are untrue if it comes from cows like my mother’s family had. Yes, raw milk is much different than pasteurized milk: It is a living food that is loaded with high quality protein and important minerals; it has 20 of the standard amino acids, is easier to digest, has a lot of calcium, and is loaded with enzymes; and it also has beneficial bacteria that aid digestion and boost our immune system. Pasteurizing (heating) the milk destroys most of the benefits that raw milk has to offer. It is considered a “dead food” by many health advocates. My advice, ditch the pasteurized variety and if you’re going to continue drinking animal milk and try raw goat or cow’s milk if you can find a good, clean, reputable source. But read about it first to see if you agree with my mother and I and whether it is appropriate for your diet. I personally drink lots of almond and coconut milk but am looking to try raw milk in the near future.
Veggies and Fruits
Fresh veggies and fruits are the foods of the gods; high in healthy antioxidants and a lot of other hard to pronounce phytochemicals; some of them almost as difficult to say as some Arikara words. But, what is most important to remember is that these compounds play an important role in keeping us healthy. Among other things they are an important first line of defense against heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, tumors, arthritis, and many autoimmune disorders. When I asked my mother about her intake of veggies and fruits she said, “We ate lots of fresh vegetables from our gardens and canned (jarred) many of them for the winter. We ate lots of vegetable soups with fresh meat. We grew lots of different vegetables: different kinds of squash, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, Swiss chard, lettuce, beets, green peas, green beans, and cucumbers.” She said that when she was a young girl she thought that the best tasting foods in the world were tomatoes eaten right after they were picked off the vine, or carrots that were eaten right after you pulled out of the ground. She laughed and said “Sometimes we didn’t even wash the carrots. We just brushed them off and ate them with some of the dirt still on them.”
In regard to fruit she said, “We grew cantaloupe and little watermelons and we ate wild juneberries, chokecherries, plums, and bull berries and canned them and made jams, jellies, syrups, and dried some. We had apples and oranges once in a while and some canned or other fresh fruit from the store, but not so much.” I think it’s important to note that most of the fruit she ate were of the low sugar varieties.
Beans, Grains, and Coffee
Many people feel that beans and grains are an important part of a healthy diet due to their nutrient and fiber content. However, because they are hard to digest and can cause inflammatory problems in our bodies, they are generally not considered to be optimal for our health and are excluded from a Paleo diet. As far as coffee goes, some folks that follow a more moderate version of the diet drink a couple of cups a day. My mother consumed all of these foods when she was growing up.
My mom said that her family raised a lot of northern and red beans and harvested them by hand and stored them in large sacks. When there was enough meat and eggs, beans were generally more of a side dish than a main meal. When I asked her about eating grains she replied, “We ate grains because we grew our own and took them to Garrison, ND, and had them ground into fresh flour that we put into 100 pound flour sacks. We used the flour in our baking to make fresh bread, pancakes, and biscuits. The breads we made were simple. We used live yeast, flour, salt, sugar, lard, and milk or potato water. ” I want to point out that the grains that my mother ate were fresh, clean, organic, and very likely had much less gluten protein in them.
I’m a coffee drinker and know that drinking no more than a couple of cups a day has a number of important health benefits, including preventing heart disease and some types of cancer. My mother has been a coffee drinker for as long as I’ve known her and I wondered how long she had been drinking it. When I asked her she said “When I was about 11 or 12 years old I started drinking coffee. I only drank a cup or two a day. We drank it mostly for the warmth on cool and cold days and then I ended up drinking it for most of my life.”
How Much Did You Eat?
Most research that looks at the relationship between how much we eat and how long we will live says that when we eat less we will be healthier and live longer. In the world of anti-aging medicine this is called the 80% rule: eat until you are only 80 percent full. In my last column, I mentioned a 112 year old man by the name of Walter Breuning from Great Falls, Montana (who died in 2009). He credited his long life to not eating too much (he ate only two meals a day and took one daily aspirin).
When I asked my mom what was the usual amount of food she ate when she was growing up she said, “We ate simple and we couldn’t take too much food, we had limits on how much we could eat. We could take a second helping if we wanted but most of us didn’t. We didn’t eat that much, but we never felt like we were hungry or being starved. We generally had one serving and we felt satisfied.” As you can see my mother followed the 80 percent rule.
Desserts, Exercise, and Paleo Indians
The world we know is bursting with sugar. It is in nearly every packaged, processed, fast food and is in most everything we drink. It is linked to cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health problems. I wondered how much sugar my mother consumed when she was growing up and posed this question to her. She replied, “We didn’t have sweets when we were growing up and we rarely had sugar, except in the occasional dessert that we ate. But, even then, if we did eat cake or a pie we would get only one piece, and we would only have a dessert maybe once a month, or during some special occasion.”
I asked her what kind of exercise she did when she was young. She laughed and said, “We were exercising and moving all the time with all of the work we had to do to take of our farm, gardens, and animals. We worked hard and either walked or rode horseback wherever we went. We milked, fed, and took care of our cows. We helped our dad with all the chores and put in a lot of time on our garden; pulling weeds, cultivating, planting, harvesting, and watching over our crops. We rode horseback when we took our cows to water or rounded them up. We did housework, took care of little brothers and sisters, cooked, cleaned, helped with laundry, and did everything else that needed to be done or were told to do. We didn’t have a TV, but even if we did we would have never had time to watch it.” It's important to mention that constant movement that includes a variety of physical activities such as pushing, pulling, lifting, walking, squatting, bending, laying on the ground and getting up, etc., are now considered to be the most optimal type of exercises for increasing wellness and longevity. This type of workout is fundamental to a Paleo lifestyle.
My mama has deep healthy Paleo dietary roots. I’m sure that her early healthy eating days shaped her genes to protect her for a long time against the diabetes she now has. I know that the optimal way for her to eat is Paleo. The last couple of summers when I have come home to White Shield I’ve put her on a Paleo diet and watched her blood glucose levels drop to the normal range in a matter of a few days. When she eats this way she sleeps better, has less pain, feels better, is more alert, and sleeps less during the day.
What she and my father ate back then helps to explain why they looked so handsome, healthy, and beautiful in the picture on that sits on the side table in my living room. Back in the day they were Paleo Indians. Isn't it time we all returned to the traditional lifestyle of our Paleo ancestors? Can you imagine a world of healthy, fit, happy, diabetes-free Indians? I can.
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He leads a regular morning mindfulness practice for staff, students, and faculty in his department. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org