The Choctaw long have been recognized as the best agriculturalists in the Southeast, with historical accounts detailing a rich, plant-based Native American diet. But were they also the first vegetarians? According to Rita Laws, the answer is no.
Laws, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology and writes about history and nutrition, tackled this misconception more than 20 years ago. While the Choctaw have spent thousands of years cultivating corn, pumpkin and beans, they were not traditionally vegetarians, she said—or at least not on purpose.
“Agriculture was so important to our ancestors that they really focused on that to the exclusion of meat,” she said. “It wasn’t so much a health-conscious decision, but we ate what was available, and that was what we grew. Eating meat was more the exception than the rule.”
Laws, Choctaw, adopted a vegetarian diet in 1979 and now advocates for a return to healthy diets that include traditional plant-based foods. Her quest to understand the Choctaw diet began as a personal journey to take control of her own health and combat obesity.
“I was trying to figure out why obesity is such a big thing among Oklahomans with Indian blood,” she said. “I found that it is tied to the nutritional memory of our bodies and the way we have strayed from our ancestral diets.”
Laws discovered that the Choctaw rarely consumed meat prior to 1492. She also found that, after European contact, indigenous people began moving toward animal-based diets while the settlers began moving toward vegetables.
“This is more evidence of how our culture was badly injured after the Europeans arrived,” Laws said. “Prior to European settlement, interior tribes like the Choctaw had a tendency to eat little or no meat because they simply lacked the technology to move toward an animal-based diet.”
In fact, Laws estimates that as part of their Native American diet, the Choctaw grew 60-80 different crops while the Europeans brought seeds for only 10-15.
Factoring in the different strains of each crop increases that estimate exponentially, said Ian Thompson, historic preservation officer for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. For example, Natives likely grew hundreds of different strains of corn while the Europeans had access to only a few.
“For a specific community like the Choctaw, we may have grown a dozen or more kinds of corn,” Thompson said. “But we also had orchards of native trees: persimmon, pawpaw, hickory, walnuts and wild plums. And our agricultural systems supported strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and mulberries. If you consider all that, we had a whole lot more than the Europeans.”
But Europeans brought firearms, gunpowder, metal blades and other weapons, forever changing the landscape of North America and devastating the Native American diet and nutrition, Laws said. They also introduced domesticated animals like sheep, goats, cows, chickens and pigs, which made animal products accessible without hunting.
“After those things were introduced and catching meat was easier, indigenous people started eating a lot more meat,” Laws said. “Obviously some tribes were more dependent on meat before colonization—like the areas with lots of buffalo—but the tendency overall was to eat less meat and focus on a plant-based diet.”
Although the Choctaws’ transition from a hunter-gatherer society to sedentary lifestyle was gradual, the effects of the “modern diet” are obvious today, Laws said. She is pushing for a return to historic foods as a way to reverse unhealthy trends.
“Where obesity seems to be so bad among the indigenous, if they identify historic foods and reintroduce those, cooked the way our ancestors cooked it, it has a positive effect,” Laws said. “And, of course, eating less meat will make us healthier and live longer.”
A return to traditional foods also means a step toward food sovereignty, Thompson said. For 15,000 years, the Choctaw have made a home in the southeastern United States, where they weathered climate and cultural changes.
Before European contact, the Choctaw relied on a seasonal Native American diet that revolved around agriculture, Thompson said. The Choctaw traditionally planted in the spring, harvested throughout the summer and hunted during late autumn, but they did not rely on meat as a staple.
“The only time meat was the main course for Choctaws was in the hunting camps,” he said. “Even after European contact, they would preserve the meat and trade it, but they lived on the produce from the harvest and ate meat very sparingly.”
That changed as the Choctaw grew more adept at hunting. Through colonization and Indian removal policies, the Choctaw lost even more of their agricultural expertise, Thompson said.
“When our real health problems began, it was through commodity foods,” he said. “Instead of natural diets full of fruits and vegetables, we moved to a new diet that was high in calories and saturated fat, and low in nutrients.”
Like Laws, Thompson recommends returning native crops to the Native American diet. “Native foods are an important part of who we are, the core of our relationship with the earth,” he said. “If we’re suffering from colonial diseases like diabetes and obesity, that’s the ultimate bondage.”