Ayaca e’ Iguana: Decolonizing Indigenous Diets

Cyclura nubila- Cuban Rock Iguana

Most of the social and spiritual gatherings I participate in are composed of people from a variety of ethnicities and beliefs. Coming from a multi-cultural background myself, this is usually not an issue. Yet, as years have gone by, I’m finding myself feeling increasingly uneasy at the upcoming of any new event. We all have cultural blind spots and a certain amount of ethnocentricity, yes. Because of this awareness, I try not to look for offense in the ignorance of others; we are all working from our own programming and we are all in different spaces. But this discomfort continues and for the longest, I couldn’t quite pin-point what it was that bothered me so much about non-Indian guests in our gatherings.

A Nanticoke Elder once told me that the mind is cunning; it knows everything we 256px-Loma_Linda_University_Vegetarian_Food_Pyramidknow and it uses it to play tricks on us. As an assimilated Indigenous person of the Americas working on my own decolonization, I know how deep the thorns of colonialism are buried in Taino consciousness. It’s a pain that’s been there for so long it’s become white noise, invisible, unseen. In other words, it’s “normal”. Occasionally, this illusion shatters, and that’s when our Inner Wisdom whispers… “Pay attention!”

Not too long ago, I saw a post online that sparked that discomfort. The title spoke of decolonizing Indigenous foods and it displayed an image of a food pyramid made almost entirely of non-animal sources. I paid attention. It finally dawned that what I was feeling all this time was oppression.

I am being assimilated!!

It took me a minute to see it, because it’s not a detail that jumps out at you right away. I am a colonized person and this socialization comes with a certain amount of distortion. Besides, veggie based diet proponents say it’s about health and well-being, eating right and being in spiritual balance with the world. It’s not about punishment and assimilation… it’s about light and love and kumbaya!

But this Taino woman begs to differ.

Post-Colonial Disorder; Is it me?

Because the only element I have any control over is myself, I look there first. The trauma of colonialism leaves those colonized with a gaping wound that remains with us for life. This wound then becomes part of the inheritance of our bloodlines. This is not a statement of victimization, but a statement of fact. According to the conqueror’s own Academic authorities, most (if not all) societies that experience colonization and genocide exhibit symptoms reminiscent of PTSD and historical trauma.

Because I’m aware of this, I tend to question my initial reactions. Through the years, I tried discussing the topic with others, but they didn’t quite get where I was coming from. “You’re biased” they’d say. “You’re over-reacting”, “You’re being dramatic” and “It’s not that bad” I was told. So I second guessed my Inner Wisdom and said the same thing to myself every time that uneasy feeling came up. It wasn’t until I stopped to question everything, do my own research and reflect with Ancestral guidance, that I came to the truth of my assimilation.

To those who feel I may be over-reacting, I share a story:

The night-long ceremony was coming to a close. It was a hard one, as our own internal challenges were made more difficult by inclement weather. As is common in many ceremonial gatherings, food had been specially prepared and blessed for this occasion, so that all can share in the blessings and the bounty provided by the Creator. Heavily laden plates, decorated with flowers, were passed around among those gathered- one of these plates was buffalo meat.

As the food was passed around, an Indigenous person took their portion of meat and passed the plate to the next person, who happened to be a cultural guest. This non-Indigenous person looked at the plate with disgust before passing it on disdainfully. In speaking with them later, the non-Indigenous person said that the Indigenous understanding of “we are all related” can be brought up to a “higher level”; it can be elevated to “a more loving relationship with all life on earth” and a “deeper understanding of “do no harm'”.

This is one of too many exchanges I’ve experienced in ceremony for the past 25-30 years. And while the dialogue varies, the implications and the feelings generated by these conversations don’t: the initial pain of rejection, the sense of being not-good-enough, the offense at this affront in my own circle, the heat of embarrassment at being though of as “wrong”, the sense of vertigo as conflicting realities clash within me, cold shame shivering up my spine in waves, my hairs standing on end, the knot that grows in my throat as confusion wars with truth, with feeling, with thought, with history and with the frustrated words that want to pour out of me but are held back by self-doubt.

For my own sanity, I name the feelings as they come up: disconnection, worthlessness, humiliation, fear, dishonor, panic, coercion… This is my subjective experience of the above conversation every single time. And  considering that these are the feelings of a colonized Indigenous woman in what should be a culturally and spiritually “safe” place, over the span of 30+ years…

No. I am not over-reacting.

Unacceptable guest behavior 

It’s hypocrisy when guests participate in indigenous ceremonies, lodges, dances and prayers, all the while thinking themselves superior, better than or somehow more “advanced” than the people they are sharing with. The attitude is that the ways of our Ancestors are lacking, especially with all the modern scientific advancements available today. Added to this we have the influence of Eastern belief systems, the New Age/Enlightenment movement and free access to global religious beliefs on the net. With all this available, our Ancestral ways can get a makeover. Our “primitive” religious beliefs can and must evolve, be improved, updated. Our guests affirm their prayers with our words: “Mitakuye Oyasin”, “An Han”, “Aho” and “Ometeotl”, all the while believing themselves the Chosen Ones sent to to enlighten us and lead us to a better understanding of our own spirituality.

In their defense, when we find something that makes us feel good, we want the world to know. We want family, friends and strangers to do the same thing we are, so they can reap the same benefits. It happens when we experience religious awakenings, or when we find healing in 12-step programs or specific therapies… and it happens when we find a diet that “works”.

As an Indian woman, I’m done with being told what to do “for my own good”.

Maybe this is true of our guests, too. Maybe they are not aware of how their actions seek to influence cultures and ways of life that are not only ancient, but not theirs to manipulate. Maybe their good intentions makes them completely disregard boundaries and personal limits, leading them to mistreat people “for their own good”. Maybe their lack of awareness makes them like toddlers, behaving as if their thoughts, feelings, wants and needs are more important, more valuable than that of others; that of our Ancestors or our own. Maybe it’s just cultural and emotional immaturity. Ignorance.

But this ignorance does not need to be indulged, especially since we are not dealing with toddlers. We are dealing with adults imposing their beliefs on other adults who believe differently. They are not using tantrums to convert us. Like they did during our initial colonization, they are using our needs. We are being manipulated through our need to decolonize and heal from the trauma of our conquering, through our need to heal our communities, through the need to heal our bodies and spirits.

Not only are we being manipulated, but our spiritual beliefs are being twisted to suit the plant-based agenda.

And it’s been my personal experience- many times- that when there has been no agreement to convert to plant-based eating, conversion tactics turn ugly and the love and light that’s on the plant-based brochure goes right out the window. The meat-eater is dehumanized and verbally abused- just because of our eating preference!

Our guests have forgotten that while their presence has been made welcome to ceremony, they are still guests. As such, they don’t have a say in influencing our cultural ways. A guest doesn’t get to re-arrange your home decor, your underwear drawer or the radio settings in your car… and they don’t get to re-arrange your spiritual beliefs or activities. This is just bad manners.

I won’t make space for that.

My history is not a marketing device. My spirituality is not a fad to be spun into your dietary propaganda.

I will not be forced to accept what I don’t want.

Cultural Dominion; a history of disregard…  

Being from the First People of the American Hemisphere to have lived European colonization and continued cultural dominion, gives someone a unique perspective that can only come from experience. Our history of colonialism and the pretension of western conquering mentality is what gives our guests the insolence to impose their ideals and use any means necessary to get us to comply. This behavior is in perfect cultural alignment with western history and beliefs.

Because colonial dominion is so deeply entrenched into our society, our guests disregard the boundaries of propriety when they preach a plant-based diet to their hosts, or to other guests- especially when invited to a sacred gathering. They take advantage and expose others to their propaganda when gathered for ceremony, a time in which we are vulnerable and open to suggestion. That’s beyond bad manners, that’s abusive!

As a colonized Indian woman, I see this as a continuation of our historical relationship: dominion, supremacy and ethnic cleansing disguised as moral, ethical and spiritual righteousness.

My people are still being colonized – this time through our food.

Those from colonizing societies rarely understand what colonization is or how it affects those colonized. They are ignorant of how this influence invades all aspects of life, taking everything that supports an individual’s sense of self as a human being and a member of a particular society, and replacing it with the ways and values of the colonizing people. Dress, religion, language, social stratification, governance, and foods are among the most notable of changes, but it affects non-tangibles as well: the way we think, our values, how we treat our children, our elders, ourselves. This is what makes modern colonization and assimilation so difficult to spot sometimes, because after 500+ years of these actions, the conqueror’s demands and the expectation of obedience have become “normal”. They say jump and we are supposed to ask how high.

Casta Painting, Public Domain- via WikimediaCommons

Since the presence of the colonizing forces in the American Hemisphere, Indigenous societies have been forced into one European construct or another. Our ancestral ways have been deemed inferior, at times even demonic, and were forcefully replaced with the ways of the Europeans. This is how we lost our lands, how we lost our ancient cultural values and how we lost whole bloodlines- even whole villages. Indigenous people have paid for our assimilation with expensive coin: memory, life and our future as a distinct, unique People, steering our own development.

Only those who knew (or pretended to know) their “place” survived.

This is the truth of our colonization. A truth allowed, encouraged and defined by European authority figures.

The same authority figures plant-based eating proponents refer to today.

A Matter of Authority; some context

The colonization of the People of the Americas was based on the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the will of the christian god to conquer the world. My Grandmothers were raped as they watched their babies being slammed against stone or fed to Spanish war dogs. My People were burned alive in groups of 13 to honor Jesus and his disciples. We were tortured, enslaved and colonized based on the “truth” of the recognized authorities of the time- Western authority figures who said all this was the will of their god.

The European god told the conquerors, through their Monarchy and Church, that they were god’s chosen people. Their god told them it was their moral, ethical and spiritual right to conquer the planet, dominate the population, convert them to the one “true” god and kill anyone who doesn’t comply. They even put that shit in writing!

When we consdier that the Inquisition started in the early 1200’s, that 1492 was the same year Spain ended their 800 year ethnic war, and that the last heretic executed in the Inquisition was in 19th century, the images our conquerors created demonstrating their actions in the Caribbean (like the block print above) doesn’t seem unlikely. This terrorism was common practice in medieval times- just read their history.

Or better yet, google “medieval torture devices” and see what you find.

university-2540628_1920 (1)

No Taino should forget that these are the same authorities that committed genocide against our Ancestors and continued the trend by writing us out of existence. The same ones that respond to Indian truths today with gaslighting.

With this background, it is not difficult to follow that our guests should believe their personal choices to be the “correct” ones, the ones mandated by god. And that they are the ones to bring this enlightenment to the world. It’s culturally correct belief and behavior for the colonizer- and those deeply colonized.

Like the conquerors who claimed to bring “civilization”, the “right way” of living and “eternal salvation”, our guests come to our gatherings imposing their beliefs and ideals upon our Indigenous ways. They seek to provide a “higher understanding”. They are – again- our “saviors”, god’s Chosen One’s, blessed and led by their god to teach us a better way. They have a firm belief in the superiority of their knowledge and the correctness of their actions. They’re absolutely certain of their information. And because they have no doubt, they’re driven to fix the “primitive” ways of our Ancestors. These new colonizers will teach us the true meaning of our ancestral spirituality and how to apply it to our daily existence. They are going to teach us how to live in a Good Way; in light, love and balance with All our Relations.

 And we’re expected to accept and adjust.

The only difference between our original religious conversion and this new one is a lot less death, but the reasoning that drives the behavior and the psychological abuse used to force compliance is pretty much the same. This is the modern version of the evolutionary, cultural and religious arrogance we’ve encountered since 1492.

Today’s western god is holy science. And their cannons are scientific journals, reports and studies. These are the “new bible” that should settle any debate, eliminating doubt and resistance in all dietary heretics. According to these modern conquerors, the findings of their authority figures should supersede our own thoughts and understanding. Their holy books should guide our choices, as it guides theirs, because it is the word of god science, after all. They believe that in the least, their evidence should make us take pause, and “maybe learn something good for us.”

So I did.

I learned that if we don’t pay attention, history tends to repeat itself. Here it is, 2018, and when we are harassed about plant-based eating, we are still encouraged to blindly follow the bible written by their god: science and academia- the same institutions that with their “better ways” put our People where we are today:

  • American Indian/Alaska Natives have the highest death rate in the USA; tuberculosis(600% higher), diabetes(189%), alcoholism(510%), auto accidents(299%) and other injuries(152%)
  • We have the highest suicide rate in the country; it’s the 2nd leading cause of death for our adolescents and young adults (15-24)
  • We have the lowest median age, 26, compared to the national median of 37
  • We are less than 2% of the nation’s population
  • Beyond US borders, some Indigenous nations are still being massacred, displaced and sold into slavery TODAY and for the same reason- resources, land, greed
  • It’s 6 months since Hurricane Maria and 40,000 households in the island of Puerto Rico, a US colony of tax paying American citizens, are still without water and power

I most certainly learned what the western gods have done, and continue doing, for the Indigenous people of the US, the Americas and the world. 

The Choices we Make

If an Indian should choose a plant based diet for themselves and their family, is not my concern. My concern is that our hunger for connection to the past may be used tocommunist-1294981_640 continue forced assimilation.

If a Taino wants to incorporate the Hindu ideal of “Ahimsa” to their spiritual practice, is not my concern. I’m concerned that our spirituality- whether traditional or not- is being influenced by people who have no right to influence it, yet do so anyway using lies and manipulation tactics that have been used for centuries.

That an Indian should prefer to eliminate meat from their diet is not my concern. My concern is that when we refuse to comply, plant-based proponents resort to emotional coercion, using fear, shame, judgement and even public ridicule to dehumanize meat-eaters and tear out little pieces of their self-worth; an unacceptable behavior that only repeats our history.

My concern is that I am a Taino woman decolonizing in the 21st century and it’s my responsibility to share my thoughts, feelings and concerns with my People… Not to make their choices for them, but to remind them they have a choice.

To those with ears to listen…

Our sociopolitical climate is volatile. Division and derision is everywhere. For colonized peoples, this is nothing new. It’s been our historical socialization. We learn that sometimes it’s safer to shut up and accept just to avoid an argument. It’s how you learn to be when you’re colonized and dis-empowered.

Being a good person doesn’t mean giving up your choices to keep someone else happy, especially if those choices are not other people’s concern. It doesn’t mean fitting into someone else’s definition of what the world should look like. We are all beings in a world of constant change. And while individually we are not the last word in the direction of our culture as a whole, we most certainly are the last word in our personal decolonization and that of our own family’s cultural lineage. This is a huge responsibility we each must undertake on our own. We can share, discuss and even imitate each other, but Spirit speaks through us all and manifests in multiple versions of individuality. The diversity that results from this blooming only reflects the beauty of the great Taino community, and it’s place among the greater garden that is Indian Country.

Colonialism left deep historical wounding, and the fact that it continues, doesn’t allow us to heal. And when we do, we don’t all heal in the same place at the same time, yet we recognize our own wounding in others. I love my modern Grandmothers, but I have smelled the rot of colonialist rule in some of their words and actions. When it comes to opinion, we can trust only a chosen few. And even then, we must keep in mind that they are just human.

The only way I’ve found to truly honor the process of decolonizing and reach some measure of true authenticity is to work on myself. I focus on my own inter-generational inheritance, discussing points with the few people I trust. I read all kinds of books, articles, reports, magazines and journals. Then I take the time to reflect, pay attention to the guidance I receive and manifest it as best I understand it- regardless of anyone’s opinion.

I don’t fit the mental models of many, but I don’t have to. I can only be the Taino that flowers from within me; the Taino that lives in my heart and manifests through my Being… the Taino that I am.

I invite you to do the same.


(c)A. Nanu Pagan, March 2018


While I speak in general terms regarding Western society and behavior, I am addressing those who impose their beliefs on others. If this is not you, there is no need to get offended.



Author: Nanu

A Taino woman of a certain age, exploring decolonization from the perspective of the First People to meet, and survive, Western invaders and Manifest Destiny. What I share is true to me. I encourage everyone to research to THEIR OWN satisfaction.

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