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Horticulturist’s programs help Senecas take charge of their diets

As a saxophonist, Ken Parker feeds his soul on the wisdom of blues. As a horticulturist, he encourages fellow Native Americans to feed on the earth’s natural bounty. Parker, who is 52, directs the health initiative “Food Is Our Medicine,” sponsored by the Seneca Nation and the Seneca Diabetes Foundation in Irving, to curb diabetes among Native Americans. His innovative programs include the Indigenous Food Challenge, a food cook-off, and a film series that runs thought-provoking documentaries like “Farmageddon” and “Vanishing of the Bees.”

Parker, a Marine Corps veteran, might be facing an uphill battle, but he has many factors in his favor. He is a direct descendant of Ely Parker, who drafted the terms of surrender to end the Civil War. He is the son of Alvin Parker, a respected historian in the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. And he is the brother of Robert “Freight Train” Parker, a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.

People Talk: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 15.1 percent of Native Americans age 20 and older have diabetes. How did it reach such alarming levels?

Ken Parker: Part of it is our diet. We eat a lot of processed foods and sugar. Sugar content is off the charts, not only in Native Americans but in all minorities. We need to change the way we eat. “Food Is Our Medicine” goes back to our traditional diet, which is plants. We are teaching people food sovereignty, how to take charge of their diet.

PT: How close is the relationship between Native Americans and the environment?

KP: We were the first environmentalists. I think of how our landscape has changed, and I don’t know if we are good enough anymore. We don’t talk about invasive species as often as we should. Native plants are like native people. They’re in the minority now.

PT: Tell me about the Elders Circle.

KP: It’s a family event on the third Monday of the month at the Elders Center. We have a potluck before, and we engage a knowledge holder on topics related to cultural awareness of our plants. We talk about wild herbs and herbal remedies, basketry from the bark of white ash trees. We did maple sugaring. That’s one of our foods. The natives taught the settlers about maple syrup. Between 60 and 70 percent of the food crops globally are of the Americas. That’s potatoes, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, chocolate, vanilla. What I envisioned was giving the elders a chance to share their stories. Some days they do and some days they don’t.

PT: What programs have you initiated?

KP: We started a Seneca Nation Farmers Market. Here we are in the middle of Brant, and all the produce goes to grocery stores. The Farmers Market was a way to engage local growers so we can have fresh produce every week. We peaked at 28 vendors. I do have a Kettle Corn guy. That is my only concession.

PT: What is traditional food?

KP: There are so many answers. We say our fry bread is traditional, but I like to remind people that the settlers put the natives on reservations and gave them a pound of flour and a pound of lard and said, “Make something.” Is that truly traditional? That is cultural trauma. We eat the fry bread because it was forced on us and we think that’s part of our culture now. Do you know the story of how we roasted corn?

PT: No.

KP: In 1779, George Washington ordered Gen. John Sullivan to burn all the cornfields. The Iroquois people and the Senecas survived by eating burnt corn. To this day that’s why we roast corn. We need to re-educate ourselves. I struggle, too, as a plant person, with people who embrace a lot of medicine plants. We makes salves from plantain and coltsfoot, but I know coltsfoot came on the boat so that is not ours.

PT: What about your white corn initiative?

KP: I’m engaged with a handful of farmers on our white corn initiative. We share seeds with the Tuscarora nation. We have three products: hulled, which we use in soups; flour and roasted white corn flour. My goal is eight acres this season. It’s small, but it’s a start. We don’t have the infrastructure to process more. I’m working on a cookbook. We’ve been experimenting with white corn cookies.