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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Year Degree Awarded
Month Degree Awarded
Thomas L. Leatherman
Lisa M. Wexler
Social and Cultural Anthropology
This research examines obesity among Oklahoma Choctaws at the intersections of issues related to historical trauma; structural, symbolic, and everyday violence; and the social processes of heritage, identity, and meaning-making. Unique to Native Americans is an historical reliance on food assistance, from rations in the 1800s to the more recent Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Participation in FDPIR is linked with increased risk of obesity, with foods historically high in fat and sugar, and is the primary food source for more than 60% of Native Americans.
Spanning more than six months of ethnographic research, this dissertation explores the socio-cultural, economic, political, and historical influences, as well as tribal citizens’ own meaning-making in relation to obesity, identity, and cultural uses of food. I use food-centered life history interviews, participant observation, quantitative data, and anthropometrics to investigate the ways shifting patterns of participation in the FDPIR have shaped Choctaw foodways, how these foodways are linked to Choctaw bodies and health – particularly obesity and diabetes – and how foodways and bodies are intertwined with historical trauma, contemporary forms of violence, heritage, and identity.
What emerges is an historical and contemporary dependence on the FDPIR that influences food tastes, preferences, eating practices, distinctions between cultural and traditional foods, and notions of health and wellbeing. Food plays a major part of cultural survival and affirmation, and for this population, the demise of traditional foodways and dependence on FDPIR are recognized as specific experiences that inform what it means to be Choctaw today. Further, obese bodies are associated with Indianness, identified by poor food environments, obesity, and dependence on food assistance. Adding the perspective of meaning-making to illuminate how larger structural factors figure into social processes and individual health – and how people make sense of these connections in construction of cultural identity – I developed the concept of embodied heritage, arguing that health is contingent on one’s social, economic, historical, cultural, and political position and the structures of meaning that make sense of this personal and embodied experience.
Jernigan, Kasey Aliene, "Embodied Heritage: Obesity, Cultural Identity, and Food Distribution Programs in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma" (2018). Doctoral Dissertations. 1356.