‘Hey, I grew that’: the Native American school that’s decolonizing foodways

Originally published by The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2024/mar/07/native-american-school-decolonizing-foodways

At the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, food is much more than just nourishment. It’s a way to reconnect students with their indigenous roots and decolonize their diets and foodways from the impacts of colonialism and forced assimilation.

The school, which serves students from over 100 different tribal nations, has made it a mission to serve traditional Native foods like blue corn, squash, beans, and chile in the cafeteria. The meals are a stark contrast to the processed, industrialized foods that have become prevalent on reservations.

Nutritionist Amidah Sanchez, who is Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, says reclaiming ancestral foods is key to addressing the health disparities facing Native communities. Rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses are disproportionately high among Native populations.

But for the educators at NACA, it’s about much more than just nutrition. Language teacher Jeremy Wahahrockah-Tso, who is Navajo, emphasizes the cultural and spiritual importance of these foods and foodways that were nearly lost due to centuries of forced assimilation policies aimed at stripping Natives of their identities.

Students spend classroom time learning about the history and traditions around foods like corn, a sacred crop central to many indigenous cultures. In the school’s gardens, they get hands-on experience growing traditional crops like the “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash.

They also take field trips into the forests of the nearby Sandia Mountains and high desert to harvest foods like cholla buds, piñon nuts and lamb’s quarter greens – the same places their ancestors hunted and gathered in for centuries before their lands were stolen.

Back in the cafeteria, the staff works hard to incorporate these foraged and gardened ingredients into tasty and nutritious meals like blue corn mutton stew, squash empanadas and salads with fresh wildings. It’s an effort to make healthier Native foods appealing to young palates.

For students like 15-year-old Esther Garcia, who is Pueblo, learning to grow and prepare these ancestral foods is deeply empowering and has given her a newfound pride in her heritage. As she puts it: “This food is who we are.”

Decolonizing diets is just a small but vital part of the broader mission at NACA to revitalize Native languages, cultures and traditions after generations of violent suppression. By reclaiming their ancestral foodways, they are nourishing bodies, souls and communities – planting seeds for a healthier and more resilient future.

At the Native American Community Academy, food is far more than just what’s served at mealtime. It’s a powerful vehicle for cultural revitalization, decolonization, health and healing in indigenous communities.

Recommended1 recommendationsPublished in Breakdown Spotlight, Leadership Voices

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