To be Well For Culture means to eat ancestral foods — foods that our ancestors have been eating for hundreds of generations and that continue to remain central to our indigenous cultures. Because an ancestral diet is often high in protein and healthy animal fats, low in carbohydrates, and markedly different from the common American palate of today, we get this question a lot:
“So … ancestral diet it’s a lot like Paleo, right?”
This is a fair assumption, but the answer is:
We take issue with a lot of the concepts and ideas behind the paleo diet, and we find it important to emphasize that ancestral diet is NOT the same thing. Here are some of the problems with paleo:
1. Paleo is a term that comes from Western science and practices. It is not an indigenous concept or idea. Paleo refers to the paleolithic era, which is a period of time in which “neanderthals” or cave-people existed. Non-Natives hold their “cavepeople” ancestors on a pedestal and emulate their dietary habits from this era because it is the closest connection they can find to a period in which their people ate in this healthier way. But, we as Native people know very well that our people have been eating in our own healthy way for thousands of years, including recent history and today. Non-Natives could probably learn a lot from Indigenous diets and observe that they are similar to their “paleo” concepts yet actually more well-rounded and healthy. However, they insist on de-legitimizing or ignoring Indigenous culture and would rather promote Paleo because this allows them to connect the original source of these ideas and life-ways with their own European heritage. Ultimately, we should not use the term “paleo” because it is a concept originated in western science and has nothing to do with Native people or culture.
2. Paleo diet is limited and restrictive. If you look up books or sources on how to eat paleo, you will see that they are very strict regarding what you can and cannot eat. Some of the items on their list for “okay” foods include things like bacon, chicken, and other stuff that our ancestors never ate. Other things on their “not okay” list include things like beans, wild rice, and other foods that are not only “okay” but that are critically important to the livelihood of our indigenous cultures and bodies. In an ancestral diet, it is acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all approach never works. Not only are ancestral foods different from tribal nation to tribal nation, but each person as an individual — no matter what your ethnicity or heritage — operates and functions differently. It’s important to pay attention to your body and eat what is good for you. The paleo diet is far too specific and restrictive, and it is simply dangerous and unwise to prescribe the same foods to all people.
3. Paleolithic era promotes a linear concept of time as opposed to a circular notion of time. In indigenous cultures, we acknowledge that time is circular, not linear. When we refer to “ancestral” foods and “original” ingredients, we do not mean foods that our ancestors used to eat (past tense). Instead, we refer to foods that our ancestors have been eating for generations, never stopped, and that our people continue to eat. We do not cut off the timeline at some arbitrary point. Paleo, on the other hand, refers to foods that European ancestors ate millions of years ago and stopped eating. Indigenous foods are central to our cultures and always have been, and so it is important that we acknowledge ancestral foods as a living and breathing concept, alive in the present as much as they were in the past. Native people do not come from a static culture, but paleo foods represent a relic of the past — a figment in the imagination of non-Natives and a disconnectedness from their past to present.
4. Paleo fails to foster a holistic understanding of Indigenous food, culture, economics, and ceremony. In the paleo diet, there is little to no emphasis placed on the processes surrounding food harvesting/gathering/seed-saving/hunting, the spirituality of food, or the significance of food to culture and ceremony. Ancestral foods, on the other hand, are and have always been central to indigenous cultures, and the processes by which these foods are gathered and harvested and the significance that they play in our economies and cultures cannot be underestimated. In order to follow a paleo diet, it is okay to just go to the grocery store, spend a lot of money on products that are marketed as “primal” or “caveman,” and go about your day. Ancestral foods or indigenous foods, on the other hand, are much more connected to land, culture and ceremony in significant ways that vary from nation to nation. From whale hunting in the far north to agriculture in the southwest (the list goes on and on), indigenous foods mean far more than grocery shopping and crossfit fuel.
Nutritionists agree that the Paleo diet gets one thing right: they encourage cutting down on processed foods and adjusting the ratio of nutrients to increase fats/proteins and decrease sugars. It is an improvement from the average American diet, thus we are not judging or blaming anybody who has tried out a paleo model. However, as Indigenous people it is important and should be empowering to know that a better model for you is eating in line with what your ancestors used to eat, have always been eating and continue to eat today. Why eat what white cavepeople ate when foods from your own culture are more holistically healthy and right under your nose? Ancestral foods are nutritious, culturally significant, and surely the best option for indigenous minds, bodies, and wellbeing.
Photographer Thosh Collins co-wrote this article.