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Posted by American Indian Cancer Foundation on Tuesday, December 4, 2018
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Five Indigenous foods for fighting cancer

Story by Chelsey Luger
Photos by Thosh Collins

Cancer is a global concern that is impacting Native American communities at alarming rates.

While the incidence rates of cancer varies by region, tribe, and gender, statistics show that the overall incidence rates of cancer in American Indian populations is greater than that of White and other non-Native populations. According to the American Indian Cancer Foundation, cancer death rates for Native Americans have increased over the past 20 years while simultaneously decreasing in White populations.

It’s important to acknowledge the role that colonization has had on these disheartening statistics. Many of the most powerful cancer-fighting food and beverage varieties are Indigenous to North America and woven into the culture of tribal nations across turtle island. Tribal food systems were largely disrupted through colonialism, structural racism, and genocidal policies imposed on American Indians by the federal government, but many organizations and people across Indian country are fearlessly working to reclaim Native food ways.

“There is momentum building within the Indigenous foods movement across Indian Country. Youth and all generations are engaging in healthy foods and cultural practices that will prevent cancer. At the American Indian Cancer Foundation, we believe tribal communities have the wisdom and strength within to change the story of health for our people,” said Melanie Plucinski, Prevention and Policy Manager at the American Indian Cancer Foundation.

While the data is bleak, our traditions and culture can help us reclaim our health. Certain types of lifestyle-related cancers can be prevented through healthy eating. In Indigenous communities, this often means reincorporating healthy Indigenous foods into an everyday diet.

Here are five Indigenous food and drinks that you can incorporate into your diet to end cancer. Remember that these suggestions should be viewed in context with other lifestyle choices, and will only work to prevent and fight cancer in conjunction with other food, lifestyle, and medical choices.

Berries. Photo by Thosh Collins

There are countless varieties of berries that are Indigenous to North America. Many Native communities and people continue to harvest berries on their land. Some are widely known, like strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Others might be less familiar to the general public, like buffalo berries and chokecherries. While the nutritional properties of berries vary, nearly all types are low in sugar and high in fiber, suggesting anti-inflammatory benefits and the potential to decrease the risk of colorectal cancer. Further, the phytochemicals and compounds found in berries have been found to protect cells at several stages throughout the cancer stages.

Sage. Photo by Thosh Collins

Sage has been used since time immemorial as a sacred medicine (smudge) for many Indigenous cultures. When properly used in a cultural context, the smoke from sage is said to have cleansing and protective properties. Recent studies now show that ingesting sage as an herb can also help prevent a number of diseases, including certain types of cancer. Several studies have linked the benefits of ingesting sage extract through tea. The compounds in sage have been shown to fight prostate and colorectal cancer cells.

Dandelion greens. Photo by Thosh Collins

The rich color in dark leafy greens is evidence of abundant vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which, like berries, when incorporated into a daily eating regimen, have been proven to help prevent lifestyle-related diseases and cancers. Amaranth leaves are one of the most prominent and commonly found varieties of dark leafy greens that are actually Indigenous to North America and have been eaten by Native peoples for thousands of years.

Heirloom corn. Photo by Thosh Collins

Heirloom corn (varieties that are non-GMO and Indigenous to North America) is an excellent carbohydrate option for a well-rounded diet. As opposed to the standard sweet corn variety that is most common on grocery stores shelves, heirloom corn varieties are low in sugar, rich in nutrients, and contain carotenoids, a phytonutrient which has anti-carcinogenic properties. Furthermore, heirloom corn varieties will most likely not be grown in a corporate farming environment which utilizes cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides. Replacing sweet corn with Native varieties of corn is a step toward cancer prevention. 

Chaga tea. Photo by Thosh Collins

When considering food options to fight cancer, beverages should not be forgotten. What we drink and how we hydrate ourselves contributes to our overall health, and can aid in cancer prevention. Chaga tea comes from the chaga mushroom. It has been harvested by northern Indigenous communities in Canada and the U.S. for centuries, though commercialized versions can now be found in grocery and health food stores. The healing properties of Chaga tea have been recognized for thousands of years, and science is now catching up. Studies show that compounds in Chaga kill cancer cells and stimulate the immune system. Remember that any beverage (like water or unsweetened tea) that does not contain artificial sugars and sweeteners is a better option for overall health.

Chelsey Luger is a journalist from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is the co-founder of Well for Culture, an Indigenous wellness initiative.

Thosh Collins is a photographer from the Salt River O’odham community. He is the co-founder of Well for Culture, an Indigenous wellness initiative.

Note: This article was funded by the American Indian Cancer Foundation, whose mission is to eliminate the cancer burdens on American Indian and Alaska Native people through improved access to prevention, early detection, treatment and survivor support. The AICF is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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