Ohenten Kariwatekwehn “The Words Which Come Before All Else” *

Indigenous People’s Day is observed in the US on October 11th. I celebrated the observance with my husband Jim by enjoying a meal featuring The Three Sisters, a trio of delights: corn, squash and beans. 

These staples have fed the world. Sisters?

The story Lize Erdrich, Ojibwe-Turtle Mountain Band, tells of The Three Sisters is fascinating. I discovered the tale when reading Original Local: Indigeneous Foods, Stories, and Recipes. (Heid. E. Erdrich, 2013.) 

Kernels of corn are planted in a depressed cavity in healthy soil. Beans are then added. The corn will raise its stalks to the sky, and will be hugged by the climbing bean plants. This is an advantageous duo as the beans (belonging to the legume family) fix nitrogen into the soil. The nitrogen is fertilizer. Squash seeds are added to the duo. Tantalizing blossoms, bright yellow, both male and female emerge from the squash as they grow. Squash plants have large leaves which shade the soil, keeping the ground moist and weed free. Their vines are itchy! As a result, animal pests are not attracted to the squash. The reward is colorful fruits hiding beneath the squash leaves. Hence, The Three Sisters.

Our three sisters’ meal featured delicata squash topped with  nuggets of gorgonzola cheese and a stew rich with black beans and kernel corn.

I became interested in Indigeneous people as a sophomore in college. In 1966, I volunteered to tutor Indigeneous children attending a nearby grade school. I encouraged the children as they practiced reading and completed arithmetic assignments.

Three years later, during my dietetic internship at UWHC in Madison, I enrolled in two graduate level courses. The first course was biochemistry. I had taken biochemistry as an undergraduate and was surprised how much I enjoyed the study of the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, amino acids and other nutrients. This was a tougher biochemistry course than my first biochemistry course, but I did alright. The second  semester course was advanced nutrition therapy as applied to diseases in humans of all ages. The research project I selected was the nutritional status of the Indigenous Peoples living in Wisconsin. I spent hours reading papers in The State Historical Library of Wisconsin, after working eight hours five days a week or more, as a dietetic intern.

Years passed.

Vacationing with our two children, Jim and I visited the Blackfoot Nation in Montana, The Lakota Nation in the Dakota’s, The Rosebud reservation in Nebraska, and the villages and cultural sites of the Maori people in New Zealand. An unforgettable adventure presented itself as we traveled into Alberta, Canada. We witnessed a dig and visited the museum at the Head Smashed In archaeological site.

While preparing food for my family, I also explored many cultures of the world. I started with my 28 volume Time Life Series: Foods of the World. My interest expanded to include the interrelationship of a people’s history, their culture and the land they inhabited as influences on foods consumed and cooking methods used. More recently I began to search for similar relationships within many Indigenous communities living in the United States. 

There is much for non-Native people, like me, to learn about First Nations mental health challenges. Having investigated Indigeneous history in the US as recorded by First Nation author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, having enjoyed Inuit art for decades, and savored the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass) and Patty Lowe'(Seven Generations), I have learned to appreciate and respect Indigenous ways of knowing.

The needs of First Nations concerning mental health are complex and often misunderstood. 

Here are 4 take-home messages I garnered from my studies of Native American mental health concerns.

  • There are 500+ federally recognized separate First Nation groups in the US. 
  • “People get things wrong about suicide on Native Lands; non-Natives need to learn Indigeneous perspectives on suicide.” (Native Hope website)
  • Rates of suicide, the contributing factors teading to suicide and the methods to deal with  mental health problems vary with each individual Native nation.
  • Culturally aware high quality resources are available as developed by and with many First Nation peoples. 

Two resources I recommend:

 We in the United States are observing our annual fall feast on Thursday, November 25th. This abridged version of “ The Words That Come Before All Else “ gently instills in me a  thankfulness for each of the blessings bestowed upon us .

Ohenten Kariwatekwehn : “ The Words That Come Before All Else ”

We express our thanks to our Mother Earth, who provides us with all we need to live upon her.

…  to all the waters of the world, for we cannot exist without the lifeblood of Mother Earth.

…  to the animals which live within the earth’s waters for carrying out their duties in harmony with natural law.

… to the insect beings which are upon and within the earth.

… to the animal beings and their leader the deer, as we are  grateful for sustaining us.

… to the medicine plants, which give us their energy so that we may be healed.

… to the food plants which nourish our bodies, particularly the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash.

… to the trees of the world and to the Maple tree, the leader of all of its kind, whose sap renews our spirits and bodies.

… to the Four Winds without whom life would not exist. 

… to the Thunders of the world who carry rain and energize the earth for our seeds.

… to our grandmother Moon, who gives us light and controls the movement of water on the earth.

… to the stars who give us beauty and direction and to them we return when our spirits leave this earth.

…  to the spirit beings who guide and protect us.

… to those yet unborn that we are to ensure they also have clean waters, clean air and fertile soil.

… and to the Creator for the blessing of life and the gift each one of us is to the other and the world.

So let it be in our minds.

Thank you kindly.


This blessing of thankfulness – *Ohenten Kariwatekwehn, “The Words Which Come Before All Else“ – was submitted to Indian Country Today  (ICT) e-news by Doug George-Kanentio, Akwesasne Mohawk, a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes. 

I subscribe to ICT. Reading ICT has immensely enhanced my awareness of North American Native Nations, Inuits and Aleuts. My respect for Native ways of knowing and experiencing our Mother Earth continues to increase, a rewarding journey.