On Monday July 16th, Native America Calling had myself and my wife Delores as well as Tina Archuletta, on the show to talk about being a vegan. My wife and I have been vegan for just over 18 years and Archuletta has been for a number of years as well. The show reminded me I've wanted to write an article on being a Native American and a vegan, so here it is.
I am not any sort of vegan activist. I don't throw red paint at a person wearing a fur coat, or stage a protest outside of a leather coat emporium. My journey is my own. And yes I have heard the joke countless times from Native elders who are amused at my dietary choices, "A vegan is also known as a bad Native hunter."
What the heck is a vegan?
A vegan is a person who does not eat animal products of any kind to include meats such as beef, chicken, pork, lamb or seafood, dairy products such as milk and cheese and other animal products such as eggs or honey. (Though technically honey is not an animal product, but an insect product.)
In addition to vegan lifestyle dietary choices -- which could be for health reasons as well as environmental reasons -- there are also other ethical practices maintained by vegans. They abstain from wearing fur, feathers, leather, or using products with animal ingredients such as gelatin (made from animal hooves) perfumes and cologne (which use animal scents such as musk) and cosmetics.
Whoa -- Red Flags! No fur, feathers or leather? A Native American cannot be a vegan!
It’s likely many Native people had hairs raise on their arms when reading fur, feathers and feathers are avoided by vegans. As a Native man that is also vegan, I just want to say in my own perspective, I embrace the use of regalia in traditional ceremony and the social celebrations of something such as a pow wow. When Native people create their regalia, it is done with the mindfulness of the animal. It is done with respect. The animal is honored and thanked for contributing to the celebration of Native tradition.
The same cannot be said for a leather jacket purchased at a store. In most cases, the leather is leftover from a beef slaughterhouse, and in those cases, the animal is not honored or cared for before it is used for people. I cannot condone this for my own needs.
All said, I don’t judge others for their choices, for me, being a vegan is a personal journey, I respect the decisions of other people.
Don’t you get enough protein?
This is probably the most common question vegans are asked by a person who is not familiar with veganism. This question pops up for a number of reasons. First, the meat and dairy industries are the industries that have pushed the concept of four dietary food groups with meat and dairy being the most important to schools, nutrition programs and more for decades. If our teachers were the ones to teach us, who taught them?
Simply put, obtaining enough protein in a vegan diet is extremely easy if you are simply eating enough food. If you think of three very strong animals such as a horse, elephant and even a hippopotamus -- who have tremendous strength and endurance -- all three of these animals are vegan, with the exception of drinking their mother’s milk after being born.
The USDA reports that 3 ounces of 95-percent lean ground beef provide 25 grams of dietary protein, while a 3-ounce portion, or 85 grams, of soy-based firm tofu contains about 13 grams. Three ounces is about the size of your palm. Meat may have protein, but it has unhealthy cholesterol / and saturated fat. Soy has unsaturated fat and zero cholesterol. We need on average 50 grams of protein a day. Considering the average person eats larger portions than a palm-size, we generally hit way over the mark.
So yes, I get plenty of protein with beans, brown rice, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, tofu etc. etc.
So then what do you eat?
I eat a lot actually. And a lot of people are surprised that vegan food isn’t really all that uncommon.
Some examples are the following:
Bean and rice burrito with salsa and guacamole
Pasta with tomato sauce and sauteed vegetables
Oven baked (chopped or whole) potatoes with dill
Coconut-based non-dairy ice cream
Corn flakes with soy, almond or oat milk
Chips and salsa
Black bean burger
Salads, vegetables and fruit
Some examples of replacement items:
Agave instead of honey
Drizzle olive oil and a bit of sea salt instead of butter
Tahini and sea salt on pasta instead of cheese (this was very surprising to me)
Crumbled and sauteed tofu instead of ground beef
Guacamole instead of sour cream
Veganaise instead of mayonnaise (I don’t like mayonnaise, but some people do)
Healthy reasons to consider adding vegan items to your diet
When is the last time you ate an apple -- just by itself? For a lot of people, they can’t always remember the last time they ate a piece of fresh fruit or a vegetable. But many can tell you the last time they ate a meal at a fast-food restaurant or grabbed a candy bar at the gas station.
The main thing to remember about any sort of lifestyle change is to be mindful that you are “adding things” to your diet as opposed to removing them.
If you put a fast food cheeseburger on a table and you are hungry. Chances are you are going to grab it and eat it. Now imagine that same table with the cheeseburger, but also imagine the table also filled with fresh corn on the cob with a bit of olive oil drizzled with a dash of sea salt. A hummus food wrap with lettuce tomato, hot peppers and onions, a southwestern style salad or oven baked potatoes with lemon pepper and and more.
If the table is filled with healthy foods in addition to the less healthy option, you are likely to choose the healthier food.
If you make a choice to be vegan or more plant-based food options, you will discover, you are making a decision to use less processed and packaged foods that are generally loaded with chemicals and preservatives. It doesn’t take much effort to recognize a twinkie is less healthy than a tomato.
One of the first books I had read on the healthy impacts of being a vegan was the book, Diet for a New America by John Robbins. Robbins’ name may sound familiar as he was the literal ‘heir to the throne’ of the Baskin-Robbins ice-cream empire. In the course of his life, he watched as the thousands of dairy cows were placed in terrible conditions and forced to be impregnated and give birth to keep them in a cycle of producing milk.
He continued to research the effects of meat and dairy products on the human body and discovered a link to nearly every disease and physical affliction to the connection of eating meat and dairy products.
One study had two groups. One group ate a vegan diet with a ton of sweets, sugars and more. The other group ate no sweets, but excessive meat products. At the end of the week, the vegan diet group with high sugar had normal glucose readings. The group that ate increased meat dishes, had near-diabetic and diabetic glucose level readings.
He interviewed hundreds of people and monitored studies based on these health claims. In example after example, people who changed their diets to a low-fat vegan diet had vastly increased health. Cancers were reversed, diabetes went away, cholesterol levels dropped and a general sense of well-being even returned.
People also felt stronger, had more energy and gained increased endurance.
The reasons for the increases to energy were simple, the human body does much better with plant-based nutrition, when we eat meat, our body’s digestion system has to work much harder to extract the nutrients than if we had just eaten the plants.
All said about Robbins, the man was certainly an activist, and his book comes across a bit strong from the activism side of things. But setting that aside, the amount of research he compiled is truly amazing.
Being a vegan affects positive change to the environment
In May of this year, The Guardian posted an article with the headline, “Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.” I have done tremendous personal studies over the years, and though the claims by The Guardian are just released, their reported statistics are not new.
But let’s break it down.
It is important to know that the meat industry is heavily subsidized by the government and meat ranchers receive considerable offset monies to maintain the massive usage of water to maintain their meat production.
The Guardian is not the only news agency to join the reporting on the positive effects of a plant-based diet on the environment. Other media agencies to include PBS, Time Magazine and NPR have joined the narrative.
In an article by the Daily Utah Chronicle titled The Environmental Impact of Veganism outlines many environmental concerns due to a vast meat-consuming world. Due to the massive needs of cattle overproduced to accommodate meat-eaters thus a greater need to feed them on increased farmlands, rainforests are cleared to make way for the cattle to the tune of more than 260 million acres of forest have been cleared for animal production.
The article also highlights the overuse of water and cites the Georgetown Review: “Animal agriculture consumes on average 55 trillion gallons of water annually…On a micro level, it takes roughly 5,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.”
Additionally, PBS has reported that citizens in the U.S. consume nearly 50 billion burgers per year. Thus, each hamburger that originates from animals raised on rainforest land destroys approximately 55 square feet of forest. The World Bank found that animal agriculture is responsible for “91 percent of Amazon destruction, with one to two acres of rainforest being cleared every second.”
So all said, it takes a much greater area of land to feed a meat eater for one year, than it does to feed a vegan for one year. A meat eater needs to eat a cow, which eats a huge share of plants. A vegan only needs the plants.
Diet for a Small Planet, the 1971 bestselling book by Frances Moore Lappé, which was the first major book to note the environmental impact of meat production as wasteful, made a startling connection to the use of land by the meat and dairy industry and diet.
A meat-eater, based on the use of land needed to support the livestock they need, needs the equivalent of two football fields worth of land to support them. A little over two acres.
A vegan needs 1/6 of an acre. Thus those two football fields for one meat eater, could support 14 vegan diets for one year.
According to J. Morris Hicks, author of Healthy Eating, Healthy World: “When comparing our typical Western diet to a whole food, plant-based diet on a per calorie basis, we find that it requires over 10 times as much land, over 10 times as much water, and over 10 times as much energy.”
To follow that up, author John Robbins said in his book, Diet for a New America, “When it comes to grain production vs. beef production: By using our grain to produce beef, we waste an estimated 96% of the grain’s calories and 100% of its fiber. Hence, for every “quarter pounder” of beef consumed, (190 calories of beef) the grain required to produce those 190 calories would produce enough grain to feed three people for an entire day.”
“Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.”
Albert Schweitzer was a german theologian born in 1875 that has had an effect on the way I think about the choices I have made in my life.
When you have sausage and eggs for breakfast, a cheeseburger for lunch, and veal, lamb or goose pate’ (I’ve never had it fyi) for dinner, you are contributing to a pretty terrible life and ends to the animal involved.
Cows, pigs, chickens and other animals live in truly terrible conditions on massive crowded farms before they give themselves to us. Take a look at any of the videos on YouTube related to factory farming and be prepared to be horrified at what you see. It is not for the faint of heart, and I do not suggest children watch.
But imagine this energy going to feed your family, it is a cause for concern to say the least.
Again, we must take into consideration the flip-side of the coin with tribal practices such as slaughtering a sheep. The animal is blessed and thanked for its life benefiting of others in this world.
We are all on a personal journey.
Surviving as a vegan in a Native Community, It’s rude to refuse food
A few years ago, I was offered a plate of food at the Senior Center in my Native community of Akwesasne. As a Mohawk, it is incredibly rude to refuse food as you are stepping outside of the community’s belief that we are all together and sharing bounty in order to thrive.
I politely declined the plate, nervous that I was being rude, a Mohawk elder immediately called me out, stating, “If someone offers you food, you are supposed to take it!” I said “Yes, sir.” I immediately went and took the plate, but was able to give it to my video assistant. The elder also asked for my pumpkin pie, so it turned out to be a lighthearted moment.
I am grateful for the memory, but it is a real feeling of concern that I feel that I wish not to be rude to my community. I was told by a friend in the tribe who I took aside to discuss with him that there are sometimes alternatives, such as saying, “thank you so much for offering, I am full with lunch, but perhaps some coffee?” This way you are not refusing hospitality. Ways to approach this are different in every community. So it is a good situation to ask.
If someone was diabetic for example, a community member would not want to harm someone’s health, but an explanation of the fact and offering an alternative shows appreciation for the offer of hospitality.
Sometimes it is simply not an easy thing to be at a community event or celebration where food is the main focus. Many Native food preparers use meat and options can be limited. It is helpful to look ahead and perhaps inquire if you may bring your own dishes. This of course depends on the community.
The best approach is very often simply looking ahead to discuss with tribal leaders, elders in the community or clan mothers to express your choices. Some people will not understand, or perhaps only partially understand, but it is about discussing things with an open heart and kindness while expressing that your choices are an important part of your life. And you are willing to work with people in a way that is respectful to yourself, your community and your culture and traditions.
Only eat what you would be willing to capture, hunt or kill yourself
Many tribal cultures have hunting as an intrinsic part of that community’s belief system.
From a personal standpoint, I embrace this as part for many Native cultures and I do not find this problematic. I respect these traditions and hunting practices as part of that community's belief system.
One important point to consider when making the distinction between culture and dietary choices is to “only eat what you would be willing to capture, hunt or kill yourself.” If you are comfortable with catching fish, but not with killing a deer, perhaps you can make the same dietary choices.
For me personally, I would not wish to catch, hunt or kill any animal. That is simply my personal choice and I do not take issue with anyone hunting as long as there is love, honor, respect and mindfulness about what the hunter is doing and the reasons why. Every hunter has a responsibility to hold a profound respect for the animal they are taking home to their families.
I have heard many stories regarding being mindful when hunting. A Native elder once told me, and I have seen similar sentiments elsewhere, this thought:
“When you hunt, ensure that the animal does not see you. Otherwise you will be feeding fear to your families.”
Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) is Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent. He and his wife Delores Schilling have been vegan for about 18 years.
Follow him on Twitter -@VinceSchilling