At the Science Museum of Minnesota, researcher Paul Red Elk has recently grown beans from ancient seeds and compared them with modern strains. Tests show that these old seeds have eight to 10 times as many antioxidants as grocery-bought beans.
Paul Red Elk's four-foot cornstalks sprouted from ancient seeds, and they've given him the germ of an idea that he thinks could improve Indian health.
Working in a garden in the back yard of the Science Museum of Minnesota, Red Elk has been nurturing the ancient seeds and comparing them to modern varieties.
He hopes to show how changes in diet in the past half-century have steered many American Indians toward obesity and diabetes.
And he hopes to help reverse that trend by distributing the seeds back to the native communities they came from.
Some of the seeds are from Red Elk's own collection, and some were gathered by Dr. Wesley Hiller, a Minneapolis dentist who scoured archaeological digs and native communities in the 1930s looking for ancestral seeds.
From all over the U.S. and Canada, people mailed him their grandparents' seeds, wrapped in Kleenex tissues or in baby food jars, wondering what they were.
Tests showed that some of Red Elk's beans from one of his gardens in Farmington had eight to 10 times as many antioxidants as grocery-bought beans, said Craig Hassel, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota.
Hassel and Red Elk believed nutrients were lost from the newer breeds as scientist sought to breed bigger, sweeter varieties.
Red Elk said government-issued food such as lard, canned hams and blocks of cheese replaced some tribes' traditional diets of buffalo, fish and garden produce.
And poverty can be a factor, prompting families to choose cheap but high-calorie food.
"I'm a person who doesn't argue with my elders," said Red Elk, who learned about gardening from his late grandparents, both medicine people, while growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the 1950s before moving to St. Paul.
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