Choctaw historian at KU restoring cultural knowledge through food, fiction, family
photo by: Kathy Hanks
The published works of Devon Mihesuah fill a wide space between two bookends in her office at the University of Kansas.
The prolific author juggles her time between being a professor, writing (both fiction and nonfiction), and advocating for healthy eating in the Native American community, among many other interests.
Mihesuah, a Choctaw historian, is KU’s Cora Lee Beers Price Teaching Professor in International Cultural Understanding. Her 17th book, “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health,” co-edited with Elizabeth Hoover, is due out this summer.
Mihesuah recently spoke to the Journal-World in her office at Bailey Hall, surrounded by her books, photos, Native American artwork and a basket of Indian corn similar to what she grows in her own garden.
Her membership in the Choctaw Nation is at her core, she says, and it drives her life’s work. She has been featured as one of the Choctaw success stories.
Earlier this year she was interviewed on Gastropod for an episode called “Pick a Pawpaw: America’s forgotten fruit.” She talked about growing up eating pawpaws at her grandparents’ home in Muskogee, Okla. She explained how Native American tribes also used the pawpaw tree bark for ropes and string, and ground up seeds to use to combat head lice.
Mihesuah, who has a doctorate from Texas Christian University, arrived at KU in 2005 from Northern Arizona University, where she had been a full professor. That same year, her book “Recovering Our Ancestors’ Gardens: Indigenous Recipes and Guide to Diet and Fitness” was published.
A year later, she launched the American Indian Health and Diet Project. The website, aihd.ku.edu, has a mission to address the health problems faced by indigenous peoples.
“You will find no fry bread recipes here,” Mihesuah wrote in the introduction on the website. Instead, those visiting the site can expect to learn about growing nutritious food, healthy eating habits and exercise. On her Facebook page “Indigenous eating,” she annually sponsors the “Week of Indigenous eating challenge.”
photo by: Kathy Hanks
“Everything I write has personal meaning for me,” Mihesuah said, as she pulled out her first book, published in 1992: “Cultivating the Rosebuds: The Education of Women at the Cherokee Female Seminary, 1851-1909.”
The seminary building on the book cover has a physical connection to one of her most recent books, “Ned Christie: The Creation of an Outlaw and the Cherokee Hero.”
Ned Christie, a Cherokee statesman, was accused of killing U.S. Deputy Marshal Daniel Maples across the street from the seminary. The seminary building still stands on the campus of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla.
“I get emotional about everything I write,” she said.
And that’s including her fiction. She drew upon her family’s way of life and their gardens in her first novel, “The Roads of My Relations,” which covers more than two centuries in the lives of a Choctaw family.
Every generation of her family has had a garden, she said, all the way back to the 1830s. Every time the Native American families were forced by the government to relocate, they would re-create the garden they had before. At the centerpiece of her first novel is a family trying to re-create its culture, history and homeland — all in the garden.
During her time at KU, Mihesuah has bonded with other Native American professors in Lawrence, including Elizabeth Kronk Warner, who teaches law, and Sarah Deer, who teaches in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and the School of Public Affairs and Administration.
“We try to get together for lunch as stress relief,” Mihesuah said.
Kronk Warner, director of KU’s Tribal Law & Government Center, was recently appointed as the first female dean at the University of Utah law school, and she has an essay in Mihesuah’s “Indigenous Food Sovereignty” book.
“What I like about her new book is there are chapters from academics and a section for short essays by indigenous people who work with food and sustainability, and they wrote what they knew,” Kronk Warner said.
When Kronk Warner first arrived at KU, she was told that Mihesuah was a good person on campus to get to know.
“She was at the top of the list as someone who was doing very good work,” Kronk Warner said. “She is amazing — a prolific writer and a fantastic leader in her field. She is a role model in terms of what she accomplished in her career.”
Deer, who will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in September, knew of Mihesuah’s work before arriving at KU in the fall of 2017.
“Before I knew her, I read her book ‘Indigenous American Women’ a hundred times, and it has been useful in my teaching,” Deer said. “Her books have a rigorous scholarship, but they are very readable.”
Mihesuah said that when they catch up, they are usually asking one another where they have been or where they are going next.
For Mihesuah, it will be a very busy spring finishing up the two online classes she is currently teaching. Plus, she will be heading to Oklahoma City where her Ned Christie book is a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. In mid-May, she’s heading to Phoenix for the Southwest Intertribal Food Summit, where she’ll speak about food sovereignty. Then there is a trip to New Zealand, where she’ll talk about indigenous gardens.
But she is never gone for long, especially in the growing season, because it’s her turn to tend the family’s garden.