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The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 411-434

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Indigenous Nutrition

Using Traditional Food Knowledge to Solve Contemporary Health Problems

I grew up on the island of Cape Breton in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, an island called Unama'ki (land of fog) by the Mi'kmaq people indigenous to this region. I was taught to hunt and fish by my grandfather and father, gathered berries with my family, developed a taste for many wild foods, and enjoyed a wide assortment of produce from the family garden. These experiences expanded my enjoyment of food beyond the traditional fish, potato, and cabbage fare on the eastern coast of Canada. I was also exposed to the processed and "fast" foods then rising in cultural prominence.

Following the tradition of leaving Cape Breton/Unama'ki because of the economic conditions there, I have lived in urban areas across Canada for much of my life. Over the ensuing years I have had a keen interest in the relationship between food and culture, nutrition and health. While learning to appreciate the global diversity of food traditions from my culturally diverse friends, I have been concurrently dismayed by the dramatic changes in dietary habits associated with consumer culture. These changes in dietary habits reflect, in my opinion, a deteriorating appreciation in our personal and social connections to food as well as underlying environmental and ecological problems.

While studying science in a multidisciplinary university environment, I also pursued an interest in traditional Chinese medicine. From this emerged an effort to understand the relationship between science and traditional knowledge, particularly in the area of health and healing.1 In traditional Chinese culture, as in Aboriginal culture, there is no clear distinction between food and medicine. In working as a healer I became increasingly [End Page 411] cognizant of the close relationship between food and many common health problems.

Several years ago I returned to what I had always considered home, the island of Cape Breton/Unama'ki. I was dismayed by many changes in the natural and cultural environments. Groundfish have become scarce; in some cases species are listed as threatened. Traditional clam beds are exhausted, and there are problems with heavy metal contamination of seafood. Off-road vehicles now crisscross the island, damaging sensitive coastal ecosystems, riparian zones, and streambeds. Young people are increasingly overweight and inactive and favor fast foods grown and produced in distant lands.

I work in a program called Integrative Science (Toqwa'tu'kl Kjijitaqnn) developed at the University College of Cape Breton.2 This program is a new initiative to "bring together knowledges" from Western scientific and Aboriginal worldviews for the purposes of university science education and research. I have developed curriculum for a fourth-year course dealing with the "dynamics of health and healing at the organismal, population and ecosystem levels." Extensive material dealing with the epidemiology of diet-related disease and the nutrition of modern and traditional diets is included. Through course laboratories, students have the opportunity to explore their nutritional status and compare the nutritional features of traditional dietary patterns. Preliminary efforts are now under way to grow a community-based, participatory research program focused on the traditional Mi'kmaq diet as a means of cultural renewal and as a solution to the present and growing problem of diet-related disease.

Nutrition-Related Epidemiology

Medical doctor Denis Burkitt was among the first to see a relationship between nutrition and the geographic distribution of diseases. Burkitt, trained as a physician in Britain and posted in Africa during the Second World War, noticed that patterns of disease showed striking geographic differences. Gallstones, for example, are very common in Europe and North America, yet in twenty years of surgery in Africa Burkitt reported only one case.3

In the 1970s, working with colleague Hugh Trowell among others, Burkitt became convinced that the significant differences in dietary patterns between Africa and industrialized countries played a major role in [End Page 412] a lack of chronic, degenerative disease in Africa. Burkitt highlighted the importance...