into the Family Foods supermarket in Plummer, 34 miles south of Coeur
d'Alene, is not unlike stepping into a supermarket anywhere in rural
America. A case full of day-glow donuts and thickly frosted cakes
grab the eye the instant a shopper walks through its door. The deli
counter is stacked in crisp brown mountains of deep-fried everything--and
apart from a long wall of pricey produce and a rather impressive meat
counter--space is given over to a typical assortment of packaged and
There is nothing exceptional about that supermarket--apart from
the fact that it sits on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation, home
to a community grappling with the obesity, diabetes and other food-related
illnesses that studies have linked to the kind of unexceptional
food lining American grocery store shelves. A group of local food
activists say Plummer's only grocery store isn't the root problem,
nor is it the convenience stores and fast-food outlets that dot
Plummer's main drag. It's the lack of healthy, affordable food options
available to a town of 900 people. That group, the One Sky/One Earth
Food Coalition, wants to change things.
"We're rampant with diabetes," said LoVina Louie as
she and three other coalition members picked huckleberries in the
mountains east of town on a cloudless August morning. A 2008 federal
study found that Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 19
experienced a 70 percent increase in diabetes between 1994 and 2004.
"It's just so much easier to buy fried foods," Louie
added. "That kind of food is what's killing us."
The link between diet and disease is hardly unique to Native
Americans, but the problem is often amplified by factors unique
to reservations. Many are located in "food deserts," defined
by the USDA as areas "with low access to a supermarket or large
grocery store." Reservations are also often located on unproductive
land or arable land leased to non-natives involved in large-scale,
commodity agriculture. One study found that 70 percent of America's
tribal croplands are leased to non-Native Americans--much of the
Coeur d'Alene Tribe's land is leased to commodity wheat producers
who sell their product to distant markets. In addition, many tribes
have limited access to land suitable for practicing traditional,
ancient food ways. The net result is that Native Americans tend
to produce little of their own food and have limited control over
the kinds of foods imported into their communities.
"So we started this little food coalition," said Laura
Laumatia, the University of Idaho Extension educator for the Coeur
d'Alene Reservation and one of the four women picking huckleberries.
As she dropped berries into a bucket, Laumatia said "a mix
of tribal and non-tribal folks" formed the coalition on the
reservation a year and a half ago to take control over their community's
"We decided to keep it pretty informal and started planning
events where people would feel comfortable," Laumatia said
of the coalition's fledgling efforts.
"Everybody always likes to have a meal together and that
definitely ties into traditional Coeur d'Alene culture," Laumatia
said, so in 2010, the coalition began hosting bi-monthly dinners.
At the dinners, the group showed provocative food films like Fresh
and Food, Inc. and then discussed them.
"That was how we got started," Laumatia said. "But
then we realized you have to look at the whole system."
After acquiring some donation and grant money, the One Sky/One
Earth Food Coalition--which by then included the tribe's Department
of Natural Resources, its Cultural Department and other key community
organizations--grew more ambitious. The coalition began offering
instructions to home gardeners and, in April, built one of three
small community gardens. It even talked the tribe's Wellness Center
staff into replacing many of its highly processed, sugary snacks
with healthier hummus, Greek yogurt and whole wheat products. Picking
huckleberries was another way coalition members were trying to improve
the reservation's food future: by supporting the tribe's ongoing
efforts to preserve and reinvigorate its hunting and gathering traditions.
"We're hoping we might be able to use some of these huckleberries
for our Water Potato Day event," explained Gina Baughn, the
tribe's natural resources education specialist. Water potatoes are
an aquatic tuber that the Coeur d'Alene Tribe once foraged along
the banks of lake Coeur d'Alene. Every fall, the tribe puts on Water
Potato Day as a educational opportunity and celebration.
"We hope to have a teepee set up and some traditional foods
[like huckleberries]," Baughn said. "Then we'll have some
elders talking about the importance of water potatoes and traditional
foods." The tribe has been inviting surrounding schools and
the general public to the event for about a decade, now. This year's
water potato events will be held Oct. 26-28.
Louie, who, a couple of hours into the huckleberry picking session
had picked more berries than anyone else, mentioned helping with
another tribal-food program back in June. At a "culture camp
week," tribal children were taught how to erect teepees; skin,
quarter and dry deer meat; catch fish and dig camas--another iconic
staple for many Idaho Indian tribes.
As positive as the event was, it also gave Louie pause.
"All the kids we took digging camas, they had never dug
camas," she sighed. "They didn't even know what to look
for. And, you know, some of the boys had never been out hunting,"
Louie said, before she stopped and stared into a deep blue sky.
"And that's who we are."
For Louie, the tribe losing its food traditions is tantamount
to losing its identity--and potentially more culturally damaging
than a disease like diabetes.
Across the country, other Native American tribes have recognized
the cultural importance of food and are trying to take more control
of their diets in what a recent report called a "tribal food
sovereignty movement." In Arizona, Hopi and Tohono O'odham
groups are working to strengthen school garden programs and local
agricultural projects on tribal lands. In New Mexico, the Taos Pueblo
is trying to revitalize agricultural traditions and become more
food independent. The multi-state Navajo have similar programs,
as do the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and the Anishinaabe of Minnesota.
Still, Louie thinks there's a long way to go, at least in Plummer.
"We don't even have a farmers' market, you know? Like there's
a few of us that are tying to have gardens, but I don't even know
much about gardening." In some ways, she said, the situation
has gotten worse--they now have Zips, a fast-food chain.
Immersing herself in huckleberry bushes seemed to brighten Louie's
mood. Before heading out to pick, she mentioned having recited a
traditional tribal prayer of thanks to the huckleberries.
"We're supposed to pray, and we're supposed to give thanks
because these berries are giving up their lives for us. Even when
our men go out hunting, you pray and you ask that [animal] if it
could give its life to feed our people. It's a connection we have."
Dropping a few more berries into her bucket, she seemed to sum
up the tribe's dilemma in a couple of sentences.
"You walk into the supermarket and you buy hamburger, you
don't have a connection to that cow," Louie said. "You
go buy a bag of chips, you don't have a connection to that potato."