Indigenous Foods, Indigenous Health: A Pueblo Perspective


Gregory Cajete is a Native American educator whose work is dedicated to honoring the foundations of indigenous knowledge in education. Dr. Cajete is a Tewa Indian from Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico.

Indigenous Foods, Indigenous Health: A Pueblo Perspective

Date Posted: 
2013-11-11 11:05

Blog Series:


Human evolution has been intimately intertwined with the use of available animal and plant food sources. Hunting and gathering adaptations, followed by the development of agriculture, required the full application of human intelligence, cooperation and social developments such as the extended family, language and various forms of practical education and environmental awareness. It was hunting and gathering that led humans to migrate to the far reaches of the earth. During this stage of human history, hunting big game marked the most pronounced development of human exploitation of a variety of animals and plants used as food.

Pueblo Farming

Pueblos created their communities around the activity of farming. The soils in Pueblo territory were variable as was the availability of water. Given these environmental challenges, Pueblo people became masterful farmers and evolved numerous and effective strategies for farming. Pueblo farmers ranged far and wide in search of potential farming possibilities. They first ranged through the mesa tops where soils which were suitable for farming had accumulated. The mesas of the southwest became the first sites for full-scale food production by the Pueblos.

The early Pueblo farmers were highly successful in the application of their dry land farming techniques even when cycles of drought, common in these mesa lands, would occur. At different stages of Pueblo agricultural history, Pueblo farmers practiced dry farming, runoff farming, flood water farming and irrigation farming. Each of these farming techniques was practiced as necessary to capitalize on the full utilization of terrain and rainfall.

Farming, traditional foods, pottery, basketry and community are all highly inter-related aspects of Pueblo history, life and tradition. The acts of gathering, growing, preparing and storing food are at the core of Pueblo community life, health and well-being. This highly complex relationship to food, combined with its deep cultural meaning, informed the spirit and practice of Pueblo farming.

Traditions of farming are still strong in some Pueblo communities. In others, traditions lie dormant as a result of the interplay of historical, economic and socio-cultural factors whose cumulative effect has been to disconnect a whole generation of Pueblo people from their gardening roots, traditional foods and nutritional health.

A natural place to begin the regeneration of the Pueblo gardening tradition is through the creation of Pueblo teaching gardens. There is the natural inclination on the part of many young Pueblo people to bring forward their best qualities when gardening or just being in nature. The garden becomes not only a place to watch plants grow, but a direct way for young people to participate in a greater circle of life. As young people work the soil, plant seeds, nurture seedlings and harvest crops, they experience the fuller development of their “natural connections” and participate in the age-old Pueblo way of connecting to place and living a healthy life.

Pueblo Foods: An Enduring Tradition

Traditional uses of plants and animals by Puebloan peoples present at once a unique and highly representative case study of indigenous dietary forms. Pueblos today represent all of the stages of indigenous use of plants and animals extending from the Paleo-Indian hunters of 8000 to 15,000 year ago through the hunter-gatherer phase, then through the agricultural phase to the present phase of transition to modern dietary habits. The Pueblo story of traditional foods is also representative of the dilemma of the forces of cultural assimilation and cultural preservation working simultaneously in the modern context of Pueblo communities. The Pueblos have adapted the foods of many traditions into the context of Pueblo life through a selective process that has categorized foods as traditional, Spanish and American. These categories are very much in line with the historical introduction of these foods to Pueblo communities.

Traditional foods have long been a central form of Pueblo peoples’ life and tradition.   Pueblo foods connect Pueblo people to their land, community and to a hunting-gathering and agricultural way of life that has sustained them through a ten thousand year history of relationship in the Southwest. Only within the last few generations has this “way” of traditional food use begun to give way to significant changes. As is true of other indigenous peoples, with these significant changes in food and lifestyle have come significant incidence of diet-related illness and all the inherent social consequences therein.

Historically, Puebloans tended to be small to medium in size, sinewy, small muscled and small boned. The Puebloan physique contrasted with that of the Plains Lakota who tended to be characteristically tall, long muscled and long boned as is typical of aboriginal herdsmen around the world. The point here is that nutrition influences physiques of Indian people and physiques varied from region to region based largely on the types of food that were traditionally eaten. As both Pueblos and Lakota people transitioned to modern diets, their characteristic physique also began to change. This process continues in today’s Pueblo children.

Introduction of Foods, Dietary Choices,and Nutritional Education in Puebloan Communities

Food is central to Pueblo communal thought and traditions. Traditionally, every aspect of the gathering, cultivation and sharing of food is steeped in ritual and meaning. In earlier days, the whole of every Pueblo community was intimately tied to securing “food” in some form. As such, food figured in every important traditional education process in Pueblo communities. For instance, young would-be farmers were traditionally taught in formal and informal ways everything they needed to know about planting corn and other traditional Pueblo food staples such as squash, beans, pumpkin, melons and chili. Young Pueblo women were traditionally taught all aspects of food preparation from grinding corn to baking bread to preparing varieties of meats and stews. This metaphoric and practical relationship to food in turn extended to Pueblo art forms, dance, music, land use and tenure, social organization and world view. Pueblo pottery, for instance, is imbued with symbolic meaning from its very conception, through its production, and into its use as a utilitarian container of food. The meaning of pottery as a container of life connected to the sacredness of food is a traditional expression of Pueblo understanding of relationship to the sources of life. “Corn is who we are”, therefore has a literal as well as metaphoric meaning in Pueblo history and tradition.

When the Santa Fe Trail was opened in the early 1800s, new foods such as coffee, cane sugar and rock salt were introduced to Puebloans for the first time. This was the beginning of the Pueblo transition to the Western diet. But even this was a gradual process, largely based on availability of “American Foods.” Puebloans remained essentially an agricultural society still utilizing their traditional foods until the late 1920s. It was in the 1920s that the railroads arrived in New Mexico and brought with them the full impact of American society and American diets to Pueblo communities. Changes accelerated after World War II as many Pueblo men returned from the military assimilated to many American ways and American foods. After World War II, there was added economic pressure to become more wage-work oriented as opposed to being solely or largely agricultural based. This economic trend had a direct effect on Pueblo agricultural lifestyles. Literally, within two generations Pueblo communities moved from self-sustaining agriculturally-based economies to wage-based economies. The Pueblo generations after World War II adopted wage-work as the predominate means of economic survival. Economics has enormous influence, not only on lifestyle but also “food style”. As Pueblo people increased their intake of processed foods, degenerative diseases also increased in direct proportion. Beginning with tuberculosis and then evolving to include heart disease, stomach disorders, obesity, diabetes and cancer, the portrait of deteriorating Pueblo health since the early 1920s has been dismal.

Changes in lifestyle and diet among the Pueblos mirror similar changes in other indigenous groups. Moving from the physicality of farming to the sedentary nature of most wage-work, combined with the “poor man’s diet” and the “ethno-stress” of attempting to live in two worlds are certainly all inter-related factors contributing to the relatively poor state of Pueblo health today.

In all of this, education at various levels is a key to reversing the deterioration. Education with those already afflicted is of course an obvious area of focus. However, chronic illness such as diabetes evolves over time and the best cure is prevention. An educational emphasis on prevention necessarily begins with awareness, training in diet and nutrition. Awareness as a wise consumer is the first step. Learning to create low sugar, salt and fat meals, implementing exercise programs and community awareness are also helpful.

However, all such educational interventions fall short if the factors of revitalization of traditional diet and an understanding of physiological adaption are not given serious consideration. The revitalization of indigenous gardens and sustainable gathering of wild foods, especially those which have protective qualities with regard to diabetes, need also be encouraged.

Ultimately, the choice is that of Pueblo people themselves. By determining to recover their original diets, lifestyle, tradition of gardening and adopting new and more healthy nutritional habits, Pueblo people can recover from the degenerative diseases of the modern “poor man’s diet”. Such recovery will require a form of health education that is culturally-specific and which comes from the revitalization of Pueblo wisdom regarding traditional diet and concept of health and wholeness. This can occur first by introducing Pueblo youth to their own “food history”. This introduction necessarily begins from within Pueblo communities themselves and then extends to include appropriate historical and dietary education as a part of the curricula of schools which Pueblo youth attend.

Next, Pueblo communities must consider the re-introduction or enhancement of Pueblo farming at a “communal” level in ways that each community deems appropriate. This re-emphasis on communal farming creates a context in which important understandings and orientations may be shared and practiced. Finally, it is important for Pueblo communities, and the schools which serve their children, to find ways to collaborate in the education of Pueblo children as it relates to health and nutrition.

Pueblo peoples, and their relationship to their traditional foods, embody the very essence of Pueblo philosophy and ecological ethic. Pueblo people must respond anew to the perennial question of “what is education for” from their own unique frames of reference. Their collective answer to this ancient question carries with it consequences that are more profound now than they have ever been in Pueblo history. There is an old Pueblo saying that is often evoked when these sorts of crucial questions are posed. Variably translated, the saying simply relates that it is time to go to “that place the people talk about”. This is not only a physical place, but also a place of consciousness. It is a place of soul and natural orientation.



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