Ancestral guided wellness: A way of life for our ancestors, a movement that could heal our bodies and the planet

Pictured: Donell Barlow.(Photo: Donell Barlow)

As Native people, we are very aware that the colonization of America and being stripped of our foodways was the beginning of our decline in health; it's important to utilize the teachings of our ancestors to counter this says Donell Barlow

In the United States, we live in a society of consistent dieters. The more modernized and advanced we have become, the further we have disconnected from nature and real food. With the billion-dollar industry of mass processed food, along with popular fad diets created to slim down the physical body without acknowledging the mind, body, and spirit connection.

I have been working as a Certified Holistic Health Coach for the past seven years, with broad range of individuals of all ages, families, and Native American communities. The common theme seems to be, not understanding our relationship to food. Our family unit and environment formed our initial connection to food, whether it was abundant or was scarce, processed or whole. Our traditional foods to be celebrated and home-cooked, or primarily processed.

As Native people, we are very aware that the colonization of America and being stripped of our foodways was the beginning of our decline in health. Our traditional foods provided the medicine and an abundance of nutrients that kept us thriving with vitality. The ceremonies around our foods prepared us to receive this medicine with and sacred understanding. 

“Before eating, always take time to thank the food”

  -Arapaho Proverb 

Dr. Gabriel Cousen later defined this intimate connection to our food in his book Conscious Eating. He makes some great statements in regard to his methodology when relating to the body as a whole and considering the connection of what we eat and how it affects our behavior. “ Negativity is often stored in excess fat as blocked energy, when we let go of such forms of negativity as self-loathing, guilt, grief, depression, loneliness, helplessness, anger, fear of others, fear of life, self-pity, blame, and unconscious death urges, this negative, stored energy leaves often leaves the body."

There is significant research to prove that what we eat affects our mind, mood, and behavior. Our stomach is responsible for at least seventy percent of our immune system. It has it's own working central nervous system that works like a second brain which communicates via chemical messages with our primary brain. These messages can come in many forms such as feeling depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, or in many cases bloating, indigestion, acid reflux, and low energy.  

In our culture, these important messages of discomfort are being ignored and treated with an excessive amount of over the counter and prescription medications that only treat the symptoms. This allows the individual to continue poor eating habits while increasing the risk of other health-related ailments to take shape. As a result, the gut weakens and can allow harmful bacteria, or partially undigested food into our bloodstream. This inflammation can travel to any part of our bodies. When the inflammation goes into our joints we feel the effects of arthritis. When it goes into our lungs, we experience worsened asthmatic symptoms. Our brain is affected by this inflammation with increased risk factors such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and dementia, which is also referred to as Type 3 diabetes. The sicker we become the more we rely on prescription medication, with harmful side effects, thus trapping is in a toxic cycle. Medication is not Medicine.

An example of a popular diet craze is the Keto, which is the most popular diet craze currently in our nation and in Indian country. This diet's foundation includes up to eighty percent healthy fats as a daily intake, which is meant to become your main source of fuel. By eliminating carbohydrates for several days your body goes into a state of ketosis. The body burns fat at a higher rate, which can result in significant weight loss and a steady supply of energy. Keto advises eliminating all forms of sugar, grains, legumes, below ground vegetables, and processed food.

The down side of the keto diet, is the elimination of a variety of healthful foods that our ancestors ate. While sugar is the number one cause of inflammation, and the most addictive drug on the planet, honey can be very beneficial for the body, especially when sourced locally. Honey helps us treat allergies, can aid cough and give us natural energy. Grains are not created equal and some can hinder proper digestion, others are full of protein, fiber, and minerals. If our ancestors ate these grains, legumes, below ground vegetables, and higher carbohydrate nuts our bodies will recognize these foods as medicine.

Another concern I have for going full keto-diet is the financial investment. For many communities with limited resources, this is not a feasible option. The keto-diet advises eating only grass-fed beef, organ meats, cage-free eggs, expensive oils and sources of fat. While those protein options are ideal, the affordability and accessibility are only available to higher income demographics or those that are able to hunt. As a result, I see many individuals loading up on poor quality meat that is full of hormones. These animals are sick and their quality of life is poor. That negative energy is then transferred onto the consumer, leaving them increased anxiety, depression, and low-vibrational food. Factory farms are also responsible for the largest carbon imprint on the planet. We do not need to desecrate any more sacred land of our Indigenous relatives to meet the demands of these factories. I am not promoting a vegetarian diet, but I am insisting cutting meat out a few days a week would greatly reduce our carbon imprint. Get creative and utilize quality grains, legumes, and nut sources for protein sources. 

Decolonizing our diet and getting back to our traditional foods is one major component to restore balance in our health and overall and wellness. As Native people, we still have the largest number of diabetes in the country, with the numbers of our youth continuing to increase. We have to take our power back and make the change we wish to see for our people and for future generations. Our ancestors always understood the mind, body, and spirit connection and incorporated forms of self-care as just a part of their daily rituals. They ate in harmony with the seasons, which in today's world would greatly reduce our carbon imprint, and as Indigenous people are something to consider.

I recount my own personal experiences and relationship to food in my book “Medicine Tracks, A Memoir". I was raised by my single father since the age of seven, in the city, and my diet consisted of mostly processed food. My father was Ottawa, Otter clan and my mother was Yurok. I experienced traditional foods only when I visited my grandparents, and I took for granted those specially prepared meals. Years of poor eating left me consistent discomfort and eventually affected my quality of life. Modern medicine offered me so-called specialists that didn’t listen or ask "What are you eating?". The doctors advised mild prescriptions that only treated the symptoms temporarily. After a year of little to no progress, I realized it was time to do the work and invest in my nutrition. I was responsible to make any changes my body asked for. 

Keeping our inflammation in check is key to maintaining our overall health and wellness, along with incorporating some form of self-care into our daily rituals. With ninety percent of doctor visits being attributed to poor stress management, studies are showing that while a healthy diet and physical movement are not the most crucial. Stress management is the deciding factor to keep the body running efficiently.

When our bodies are in a constant state of stress, resources that are meant to fight off harmful pathogens and bacteria are depleted. When our bodies consistently release stress hormones like cortisol, inflammation can occur and weaken the entire immune system allowing harmful symptoms to manifest in the body. 

To combat this, I recommend eight forms of Self-care in my Health Coaching. Food as Medicine, Nature Medicine, Spirituality/Mindfulness, Physical movement, Creativity, Relationships, Journaling, Quality Sleep

How we manage our stress makes a huge impact not just on our quality of life, but our overall health and disease prevention. I had to learn the hard way and did not listen to my body’s signals telling me to slow down. This disconnection manifested into a series of injuries refusing to heal, including an emergency trip to the hospital. It was very unexpected considering on paper and in person, I was in excellent health.

In my memoir I share my story of learning these lessons the hard way. “At this point, my leg had been injured for almost two solid years, with no running, fancy dancing, or any other high-impact cardio movements. I had come to the conclusion it would heal itself when I had connected my spirit in a way I had never known before. I had given it ample time to make a comeback and tried everyone known therapy available to me. The only thing that I could deduce was that his trauma didn’t come from a physical plane that it was in fact, coming from my "pain body" defined by Eckhart Tolle as a collective manifestation of pain accumulating your entire life. This stemmed from the past trauma or inherited family history that had left an imprint inside of my cells. Mine, in particular, had continued to feed on past emotions I had not yet released." 

Understanding our relationship to food is a process, and takes patience to recognize the triggers, and the tangled emotions tied to consuming certain foods. In my health coaching practice, I encourage my clients to journal about the foods they are eating and how they are feeling emotionally throughout the day. This exercise is a great way to reflect and understand what your body is telling you, and how to manage those messages with clear intent. It is important to be conscious of your role in the improvement and management of your own overall health and wellness.

As Indigenous people, we do not need to seek outside sources to understand our relationship to food. Imagine the impact it would make to have a diet influenced by reducing our carbon imprint as opposed to just our weight on the scale. Imagine if we stopped supporting these corporations that supply the majority of processed food that offers poor nutrition and creates a tons upon tons of waste. It is estimated that Nestle contributes eight million tons of plastic into our oceans each year. Nestle is also responsible for extracting millions of liters of water daily from the treaty lands of the Six Nations in Ontario. Meanwhile, the Indigenous residents have no access to clean water and have to travel a great distance to buy bottled water for everyday use. This is unacceptable and they have the resources to do better for their consumers, the Indigenous communities they negatively impacting, and the planet.

Understand these fad diets will continue to only work for a period of time, as they will never address the bigger picture and influence only our physical bodies. I advise you to forage and hunt when you can, grow food if it's an option, and support your local farmer's markets. This makes the best possible food more accessible and is setting the standard for a brighter future for the next generations. Honor several forms of self-care to manage your stress and make it a priority. Just as our historical trauma can be passed onto our children our current stress acts in the same manner. What is required of us is to make some effort and utilize the teachings of our ancestors. This will take time and patience but we have nothing to lose and so much to gain. 

Donell Barlow is Yurok and an enrolled member of the Ottawa tribe, Otter clan. She currently resides in Spokane, WA working as a certified holistic Health Coach, yoga teacher, hairdresser and author. Her deep passion for working with the Native Youth utilizing traditional foods as medicine has been at the forefront for most of her work. Her current projects and past work will be featured in the current issue of Where Women Create Work available nation wide. Please visit donellbarlow.com for more information including recipes, cooking videos, and contact information. 

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