This past summer, I was interning at a food access organization in Vermont when I came across a row of bottles in the corner of the industrial sized refrigerator. The vials of cloudy orange liquid contained ginger, turmeric, pepper, and echinacea extract and were labelled with “USDA organic” and “Turmeric and Probiotics.” I later learned these two-ounce “Immunity Defense Shots” were donated by a local supermarket chain. What did these “wellness shots,” reshuffled as supermarket surplus to Vermont’s food insecure, reveal about the politics of food sovereignty and wellness culture?
Contemporary wellness trends run on narratives of individual “improvement” and “success” while obscuring the hierarchies of an ever-commercializing food system. A growing popular literature asserts that unprocessed plant foods combat illness and herbal medicine is making “a strong comeback in North America and Western Europe” (Khanzan 2018). Enabled by purchasing power, middle class consumers consume “eclectic” superfoods to transform their quality of life and wean themselves away from biochemical pharmaceuticals. But the turn to plant foods as alternatives to biomedicine fails to consider Indigenous histories and contexts.
Paradoxically, privileged demographics appreciate native plants and then appropriate them as a decontextualized “traditional” health. Swallowing a conveniently sized and potent potion of ginger, turmeric, pepper, and echinacea, the Immunity Shot promises a value that stems from its “concreteness,” a reductive “thinginess” that can be used in tangible ways (Vandergeest. et. al. 1996). But decontextualizing Indigenous medicine leads to an ascendance of universal categories and a doubling down on colonizing practices rather than cultural revitalization.
Online wellness blogs, steeped in self determinism, amplify the idea of well-being as something commodifiable, purchased, and individual. Bolstered by macro processes of capitalist consumption, social media influencers craft reductionistic accounts and whittle down Indigenous knowledges into self-promoting body improvement tools. Through algorithms and feeds, online spaces encourage “broader, romanticized discourse that presupposes a greater authenticity or reality” (Horst and Miller 2012). Influencers promote traditional foods as “their” medicine; and the products they hawk are presumably trustworthy because they now live in an Instagram story.
Market narratives underwrite wellness influencers, reproducing the epistemological genocide of Indigenous knowledges. Prior to European settler colonialism, over fifteen million Native Americans cultivated food plants and habitats in North America. Indigenous food and land relationships were managed in reciprocity with spiritual worldviews. These epistemologies did not involve private land ownership but communal management (Wiedman 2012). Nonhuman life was more than food, profoundly affecting one’s identity and lifestyle, and Indigenous food plants were cultivated as nutritional “gifts” from Mother Earth.
Following the U.S. Civil War, thousands of white farmers descended on Indigenous land. By the 1870s, the U.S. military and Indian Agents had forced Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache tribes within reservation boundaries. The Office of Indian Affairs oversaw food transported to the reservations, and prioritized cost reduction over quality. Comanche, Kiowa, and Apaches received foods that were unaffiliated with traditional eating and cooking habits such as beef, bacon, white flour, corn meal, coffee, salt, rice, and sugar. Land restrictions and cash cropping decimated subsistence agriculture and self-provision. Contemporary food systems, driven by mass production, structurally forced food insecurity onto low income communities, resulting in food apartheids. Nutritionally deficient diets and sedentary lifestyle habits metastasized, resulting in the slow violence of widespread dietary disease. High rates of poverty in Native American communities also prevent access to “commercialized traditional food” which are “marketed as high value specialty foods in just a few grocery outlets” (Sarkar 2020).
These are the histories and ingredients written out of products like turmeric shots. Superfood companies attempt to muddle the boundary between food and medicine, but traditional context is contrived within settler epistemologies. The wellness movement touts the benefit of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and micronutrients while it disavows the Indigenous spiritual context of plant use. The ideological shift to “holistic health” along with the food barriers set in place by generations of dispossession create a food system of slow violence.
Against this, Indigenous entrepreneurs and allies are reviving Indigenous food practices. The Chia Café Collective, a grassroots organization in Southern California, reclaims holistic growing and cooking processes through native plant gardens and cooking tools. Their products, such as “Chia Candy,” strongly resemble their commercialized counterparts. Café Ohlone, an Indigenous restaurant in Berkeley California, mixes Indigenous recipes with western ingredients. These reclamations symbolize the dynamic, complex nature of postcolonial Indigenous identity and “drag into the open the unearthed foodways of a culture once thought to be dead” (Birdsall 2019).
Importantly, these Indigenous food scenes transcend reductionism and challenge wellness blogs and influencers. In a society where unsold turmeric shots take refuge in a poverty relief center while obfuscating Indigenous knowledge, “someone must do the telling” (Field 2009).
Birdsall, John. 2019. “In Berkeley, Cafe Ohlone Brings Back the Bay Area's First Foods.” Los Angeles Times, 15 May. Accessed [November 16, 2020] www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-bay-area-ohlone-indians-first-foods-20190515-story.html.
Halliburton, Murphy. 2005. “‘Just Some Spirits’: The Erosion of Spirit Possession and the Rise of ‘Tension’ in South India.” Medical Anthropology, 24(2): 111–44.
Horst, Heather and Daniel Miller. 2012. “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology.” Digital Anthropology, eds. H. Horst and D. Miller. Berg Press.
Khazan, Olga. 2018. “The Diet That Might Cure Depression.” The Atlantic, 29 March. Accessed [November 16, 2020] www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/03/the-diet-that-might-cure-depression/556742/
Sarkar, Dipayan, et al. 2019. “Food Diversity and Indigenous Food Systems to Combat Diet-Linked Chronic Diseases.” Current Developments in Nutrition, 4(1): 3–11.
Devis, Juan, Stacy Leiberman, and Christine Yuan . “Tending the Wild, Episode 4: Decolonizing the Diet.”, KCETLink
Van der Geest, Sjaak, Susan Reynolds Whyte, and Anita Hardon. 1996. “The Anthropology of Pharmaceuticals: A Biographical Approach.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 25(1): 153–78.
Wiedman, Dennis. 2012. “Native American Embodiment of the Chronicities of Modernity: Reservation Food, Diabetes, and the Metabolic Syndrome among the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 26(4): 595–612.