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Health, nutrition and science in general : the Aboriginal experience Kirkness, Verna J. 2009

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67246-2009_sp_AFMNet talk-June 13.pdf [ 212.4kB ]
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 Health, Nutrition and Science in General: The Aboriginal Experience  I am delighted to have the opportunity to be with you this evening to  express my thanks to the Advanced Foods and Materials Network  (AFMNet) for launching the “Be a Food Researcher for a Week” science  initiative for Aboriginal youth. I‟m honoured to have my name linked to this  exciting endeavour. I was pleased that food science was selected as “food”  is something familiar to everyone. As I said at the launch of the program,  food is an enticing and delicious subject.   I really don‟t know much about food science but I do know that it is much  more complex than knowing what foods we should eat. I‟m sure our  students in the first cohort were amazed to learn of the range of study  included in food science.   At that basic level, I believe we, as Aboriginal people, have experienced  many adverse effects to our health over the years due to the many changes  in our eating and food preparation habits. We have departed from the days  when nourishing foods were a big part of our diet. Going back in time, it is  interesting to note that “ (American) Indians gave the world 3/5 of the crops  now in cultivation”. Jack Weatherford, a cultural anthropologist states in his  book Indian Givers that “ the food revolution was begun by the Indians of the Americas. They were cultivating over 300 food crops with many dozens   of variations. Potatoes have been grown for at least four hundred years.  Means of achieving high yields was achieved by the Indians. Other food  contributions to the world include peanuts, red and green chili peppers,  corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, pineapples and maple syrup” just to name a  few. How many of these foods were on our dinner table this evening?   These foods that resulted in healthier, stronger generations of people do not  make up a significant part of Aboriginal people‟s diet today. Much has  changed even over the last few generations. My grandfather who lived to be  104 years old talked about  the big gardens they used to have on the reserve  along with farm animals. He enjoyed telling me, “your dad was stoking hay  when he was only six years old”. Then in my parents day, only a few people  had animals but many still had vegetable gardens. There is a place in  northern Manitoba called Garden Hill because they did a lot of gardening.  Like my community, Garden Hill and other reserves now have a very few, if  any gardens. Today. Aboriginal people survive mostly on goods purchased  from the local general store. Common purchases include foods like  macaroni, spaghetti,  bread (white), canned goods and far too much pop and  chips. Fruit and vegetables are often not fresh and very expensive especially  in the northern communities and therefore, these are not standard fare.    When I was growing up on the reserve we had a garden most years and  enjoyed fresh vegetables. My mother usually boiled or roasted (baked) our  vegetables and meats such as rabbit, moose or deer meat. My dad was a  good hunter and we ate plenty of wild meat, even muskrats. We also ate a lot  of fish as fishing was his means of livelihood. I can still picture those eight  or so gold eyes lying across the pan freshly cooked from the oven. My  mother had us picking berries such as strawberries, raspberries, saskatoons,  cranberries which she canned or dried for winter use. This way of life is all  but gone. Few have gardens, hunting is rare, no one picks berries anymore.  Eating and cooking habits have changed and with it comes deteriorating  health.   Food research is critical to understanding the adverse effects the many foods  and their preparation have on our health. Today, diabetes which was  virtually unknown among Aboriginal people 50 years ago is said to be an  epidemic. Diabetes among Aboriginal people of all ages is three times the  national average and the rates are increasing. A big part of this is due to the  food consumed and having more fried foods.   Aboriginal people are most at risk for obesity. In the past 25 years rates of   overweight and obesity have reached epidemic levels. The obesity rate  among children living on reserve is 36% compared to 8% for Canadian  children over all. 27% of men and 34% of women are obese while 42% of  men and 31% of women are overweight according to a recent government of  Canada report entitled Horizons. The same report states that in 2001, 51%  of the population of about 1 million was under 25 years of age.  The  Aboriginal population continues to be youthful and the birth rate is  increasing at a higher rate than the rest of the population in Canada. The  implications of our state demands that our people become knowledgeable  about how what we eat affects our wellbeing. That is why the “Be a Food  Researcher for a Week”  is of particular significance to our people. I hope it  will spark interest among our young people as they are the ones who  through there teachings and example can create positive change for our  future generations.   Science is a bit of an enigma for Aboriginal students. Since many of our  high school students on reserves do not have proper labs or teachers who  are science specialists, it is not emphasized and more attention is given to  the arts. Those who have made it through high school and enter university  more often than not choose to enter the faculties of law and education.  We  have by far more teachers and lawyers than in any other profession. Those   who have taken sciences often head for medicine. It has been my experience  that science was not emphasized when we were in school. In fact, the three  R‟s were the main concern of teachers. I don‟t have one significant memory  of anything in science on the reserve in my day. In high school, in a small  town, I had options and took physics and chemistry only to drop the physics  the next day. Somehow I managed the chemistry. Somewhere along the way,  the myth had begun that Indians couldn‟t do science or math. I had a fear of  both.   I know that my dad had no formal science education, yet he knew what the  weather was going to be like the next day and whether or not he could go  out in his boat and set or lift his nets. He learned this by years of  observation. I guess some people did put a lot of faith in how the Indians  were able to forecast the weather. You may have heard the story of the old  Indian gentleman that the neighbouring farmers relied upon to give them  weather reports. They would go to him and he would tell them what the  weather was going to be like the next day and he was often right on. One  day, when he was asked, to his neighbour‟s surprise, he said he didn‟t know.  When asked, “How come he didn„t know?”. He replied, “Radio broke”.  My dad did not use a compass when out on the lake. Lake Winnipeg is a   very large lake, yet he was able to find his nets and get back home. There  scientific knowledge came from watching the seasonal changes and the day  and night skies. He could figure how much he would get for his fish or a  cord of wood all in his head. He knew math.   Our ancestors learned about many cures. Early American Indians learned  how to use the bark from a certain tree to make quinine that could cure  malaria, cramps, chills and heart-rhythm disorders, as well as dysentery. I  remember when my mother had a miscarriage, my grandmother went out  and picked red willow roots that were boiled and she strained the roots out  and drank the liquid. Our people, in my young days also made poultices  using natural products. They picked and dried a kind of root known to us as  wehkas. Some of this is still picked today.  So to say that Indians  (Aboriginals) can‟t do  science or math is indeed, a myth. Our youth have to  be aware of this.   We have come to realize that we have to do something to bring science and  math to the forefront of learning for our Aboriginal students. Efforts are  being made to integrate Aboriginal content and context to science courses offered in schools, Elders are engaged in schools to present oral history  related to various fields of science. A common topic is one of medicines   used by our people for dealing with the flu, cuts, headaches and other  ailments. There is a theme of “Growing Our Own Scientists”.   Just recently I was invited to the opening reception at the University of  Manitoba of DreamCatching 2009: Professional Development Workshops in  Math and Science for Teachers of Aboriginal Students. It suggested that  teachers are DreamCatchers who guide students to a lifetime of inspiration  (and this could be done in math and science). In these workshops particular  attention is given to incorporating indigenous knowledge using integrated  cultural materials. It was a four day event with teachers of Aboriginal  children coming from all across the country. It is led by an Aboriginal  woman, Corrine Jette of Mount Pleasant Services who partners with  Faculties of Engineering in universities across Canada. This was to be the  6 th  time that these workshops were being held.   While I was at UBC, we started a summer science program in about 1988.  We brought in two groups of Aboriginal students from across the province e  for one week each during the summer. One group was grade nine students,  the other grade eleven. We wanted to get them before they made decisions about their post-secondary studies. They were exposed to science labs as  well as Elders were part of the program to teach them about traditional  science. The program was very successful in that when we followed up on   these summer science programs a number of them did choose to study  science at the university level. The other sign of its success is that it is still  going on today some twenty years later.   The “Be a Food Researcher for a Week” initiative is a wonderful effort that  will surely spark the interest of Aboriginal youth in the broad field of  science. It is needed as it will open doors for our young people to engage in  science and potentially make a valuable contribution to our communities  and to Canada.   Thank you, members of the board and staff of AFMNet and in particular Dr.  Ron Woznow for making this project a reality.  Eskosi.    


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