By Owen Lloyd / Deep Green Resistance Eugene

Over the last several years, there has been a growing recognition of the damage industrial agriculture incurs on our landbases, on human societies, and on our bodies.

For example, a study last year found that over 80% of global deforestation is caused by agriculture [1]. Another report by the Worldwatch Institute demonstrated the links between agriculture and colonialism, pointing out that every year millions of acres are being snatched up by capitalist investors, who now control nearly 5% of African land that is suitable for agriculture. [2]

In many cities, “gluten free” products have become ubiquitous, and numerous people have dropped wheat products altogether. Seeking alternatives to what Douglas Tompkins has termed “industrial animal concentration camps,” there has been a 20-fold rise in pasture-raised beef since the late 1990s. [3] These changes have been facilitated in part by a broader movement to decolonize our bodies, using the work of anthropologists and geneticists to reclaim a more evolutionarily and ecologically appropriate diet. In 2002 Loren Cordain branded this diet “the paleo diet” and the name has since stuck.

However, it is a term that for numerous reasons we need to abolish from our vocabulary.

Indigenous people as relics

The word “paleo” derives from the Greek palaio-, meaning “old or ancient” [4]. Other terms for the diet follow similar lines, and include “caveman diet”, “stone age diet”,  “primal diet”, and “the original human diet”.

One thing these terms share in common is their situation of the diet in the distant past. This is highly curious, because to a large extent the diet is guided by anthropological research on surviving indigenous peoples. What this means is that the language used by “paleo diet” practitioners situates indigenous people in the distant past. And having relegated them there, having erased and silenced their experience, those adopting a paleo diet can then feel free to take on the mantle of being indigenous themselves.

The idea that indigenous people somehow belong in the past stems from a racist cultural mythology called “unilineal evolution,” which falsely assumes that modern industrial civilization is the most culturally advanced state of human existence, and that all cultures are striving towards that same endpoint.

This mythology has long been used to justify and explain away genocidal activities, insofar as it does not allow indigenous cultures to be understood except as failed civilizations that should be annihilated and replaced, or as pitiable children who need enlightened white colonizers to show them the path forward. In a modern context, this racist mythology is often used by white “experts” who want to claim they are the rightful “successors” of indigenous people. In her famous essay “Just What’s All This Fuss About Whiteshamanism Anyway?”, Wendy Rose wrote:

One famous anthropologist whose specialty was Northern California insisted that Northwestern California Indians were no longer familiar with their ancient form of money, long shells called dentalia or tooth-shells. The comment was stimulated by the fact that I was wearing some of these very same shells around my neck—which had been given to me by a Yurok woman as payment for a painting. A basket specialist assured me that basket-hats are no longer worn by California Indian women; nearly every weekend such women attended the same social functions I did—wearing basket-hats that had been passed down through their families and, most importantly, were still made. A woman who was both anthropologist and art collector told me that pottery was no longer produced at Laguna Pueblo; she continued to insist on this, even after I told her the names of women who produce it there… A very well known linguist asked me to escort a group of Yuki elders around the museum and then confided to me that it was a shame no one spoke Yuki anymore; the elders spoke to each other in Yuki the entire time they were there… Taken singly, these episodes are not important. But taken together… it is apparent that a pattern exists. European-derived Americans consider themselves to be uniquely qualified to explain the rest of humanity. Coupled with this bizarre notion is the idea that natives of a particular culture are inhibited from being able to articulate themselves in a cultural context, or are merely superstitious when they try. [5]

In the same way, white experts have designated themselves the authorities on indigenous diets, and then subsequently adopted language suggesting that indigenous people are relics from the past. Conveniently enough, this brings the message that indigenous people are no longer capable of speaking for themselves. Having erased indigenous existence, these writers can play-act the role of mediums who offer us our only means of connecting with traditional ways.

Essentialized people

Another problem with the concept of the “paleo diet” is that it homogenizes indigenous peoples by suggesting that all traditional diets are essentially the same. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people state definitively that indigenous people generally ate a plant-based diet, or that indigenous people generally ate a meat-based diet.

This is problematic for the reason given above: it’s an example of (generally white) people situating indigenous people in the past and then trying to redefine their experience in their own image. Another problem with it is that it reduces indigenous people to one-dimensional caricatures, all of whom are essentially the same.

I live on land belonging to the Chafan band of the Kalapuya, and have been told by indigenous people that their traditional diet is largely plant-centered, and includes camas bulbs, wapato, acorn mush, tarweed seeds, berries, and hazelnuts, as well as numerous sources of meat including deer, fish, and lamprey eels. Fifty miles to the west, on the Pacific coast, the traditional diet of the Siuslaw people is primarily maritime and included shellfish, finfish, salmon, lamprey, berries, camas, myrtle nuts, and deer. Fifty miles to the east, in the Cascade mountains, the Molalla people were known as big game hunters, and experts at hunting elk and mule deer, as well as at fishing for salmon and steelhead.

Unlike this culture of occupation we live in, for indigenous people the land determined the diet, rather than the other way around. So while the paleo diet explicitly condemns the consumption of grains, my Nipissing and Ojibwe relatives and ancestors have been eating wild rice as a dietary staple for thousands of years.

Another road

Industrial agriculture and factory farming are killing the planet, dispossessing the global poor, and are making us increasingly susceptible to disease and other illnesses. It’s long past time we begin moving away from our factory lifestyles and begin finding ways to live in kinship with the places we call home, to feed not only ourselves but also our landbases. But we need to be mindful about how we apply those changes, and how we talk about them.

When we silence or stereotype indigenous people, whether we realize we are doing so or not, we are helping to prop up the culture of occupation we say that we are trying to stop. As the Dakota writer Waziyatawin told me, the continued use of the word paleo “is part of the de-humanization process through objectification, and… works to de-legitimize our claims to our ancient ancestry and homelands.” It is long past time we excise it.