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First Lady Remembers Native Youth

WASHINGTON – When First Lady Michelle Obama rolled out her much heralded “Let’s Move” campaign for getting kids fit in February 2010, some Indian health officials felt she didn’t focus enough on the needs of Indian kids, especially given their sobering health statistics. Now, she seems to have heeded the call, offering a new emphasis on doing better and improving the outcomes for the Indian youth population.

At a White House South Lawn ceremony held June 3, Mrs. Obama joined several Native American children in planting a traditional Indian garden, while also talking about ways to be healthy. The event was part of a new push by Mrs. Obama called “Let’s Move in Indian Country” (LMIC), which she said will specifically work with young kids in the Native American community all across the country.

“We’re going to try to make sure that all you kids grow up healthy, knowing what to eat, knowing how to exercise,” Mrs. Obama told the children. “It’s a whole initiative to work with people all across the country to think about how we eat and how we move our bodies so that you guys grow up healthy and strong and able to do well in school and be successful in life. That's what the whole ‘Let's Move’ effort is about.”

Obama said the planting was a special way to highlight her overall “Let’s Move” initiative, which focuses on all American children. The program is meant to promote better coordination among federal agencies and the non-profit and for-profit sectors to improve nutrition and increase activity among youth. The goal is to end the obesity epidemic “within a generation,” according to a memo signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Mrs. Obama added at the event that it was the first time that a Three Sisters form of planting (combining squash, corn and beans) was being done in the White House Kitchen Garden. She also shared stories with the children about harvesting lettuce and rhubarb from the White House garden for the president’s family to eat. “You see those big huge leaves?” Mrs. Obama asked the children. “That's rhubarb. And it’s huge! It’s like an elephant’s ear.”

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, was on hand for the event, and explained the Three Sisters form of planting.

“Supporting and reinvigorating our traditional ways of healthy living and eating is one of the most important things we can do to strengthen our Native American communities,” Keel said in a press release issued after the event. “What the First Lady is doing is incredible. ‘Let’s Move in Indian Country’ is reaching a generation of tribal youth and connecting them with a healthy, traditional path in life. As tribal leaders we are very supportive and grateful for her efforts.”

Keel also remarked on the importance of healthy lifestyles for Native youth and performed a blessing for the event. Mrs. Obama and the children later harvested some vegetables from the garden.

The renewed White House attention to the health of Native kids was widely welcomed in Indian country. According to federal data, the obesity rate among American Indian and Alaska Native youth is approaching 50 percent, which is twice as high as their white counterparts; and twenty percent of American Indians ages 15 years or older had pre-diabetes in 2001–2004. In addition, American Indian/Alaska Native adults are nearly two times as likely to be obese as their white counterparts, and American Indian/Alaska Native adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes.

A study issued in 2009 based on data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics found that that Native American 4-year-olds were twice as likely to be obese as non-Hispanic white or Asian children in the United States. It also indicated that American Indian preschoolers were more overweight than youth in other racial groups.

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The American Indian and Alaska Native children who took part in the event hailed from a variety of tribal nations including Jemez Pueblo, Skokomish, Cherokee, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Navajo, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, St. Regis Mohawk, Tlingit, Oglala Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux, and the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.

“We harvested some crops for the First Lady and planted some squash, beans, and corn,” youth Jayce Archambault of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said in a Department of the Interior press release issued after the event. “It was a real fun experience; to get outside and be active and plant these things to help people get healthy is something we will remember.”

Mrs. Obama was also joined by leaders in the Indian community, including Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, Indian Health Service Director Yvette Roubideaux, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Director Dennis Concannon, Bureau of Indian Education Director Keith Moore, National Museum of the American Indian Director Kevin Gover, NFL quarterback Sam Bradford, and basketball player Tahnee Robinson.

After the event, Echo Hawk released the following statement: “I am always very pleased when history acknowledges the wonderful achievements of our nation’s first Americans. The agricultural contributions of the ancestors to contemporary American Indian and Alaska Natives are significant, and today’s event is a great testament to their lasting legacy.”

The Interior Department explained in a press release that corn, beans, and squash, when planted together, are referred to as the Three Sisters, a way of plating that stems from tribal stories that weave the three agricultural staples into traditional narratives.

“This method is also known as companion planting,” according to the Interior release. “The science behind such planting techniques involves the mutually beneficial effects of their simultaneous growth. The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants utilize and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, which helps prevent weeds. This method of planting and agriculture differs greatly from the more common methods of plowing.

Interior officials said the First Lady’s Three Sisters planting acknowledges the contributions and skills of the nation’s first Americans.

The White House planting built on momentum Mrs. Obama achieved in May when she formally announced the “Let’s Move in Indian Country” initiative, which is aimed at supporting and advancing the work that tribal leaders and community members are already doing to improve the health of American Indian and Alaska Native children. The initiative launched at an event at the Menominee Indian reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin where Echo Hawk was joined by the Office of the First Lady Let’s Move! Initiative Executive Director Robin Schepper and other federal officials.

“Through ‘Let’s Move in Indian Country’ we have an opportunity to engage Native communities, schools, tribes, the private sector, and non-profits to work together to tackle this issue head on,” Mrs. Obama said in a statement explaining the initiative. “Tribes can sign up to become part of Let’s Move! in Indian Country, elders can mentor children about traditional foods and the importance of physical activity, and families can incorporate healthy habits like eating vegetables or participating in the President’s Active Lifestyle Award into their everyday life.”

According to the Office of the First Lady, the initiative has four main goals: (1) create a healthy start on life for children, (2) create healthy learning communities, (3) ensure families access to healthy, affordable, traditional foods, and (4) increase opportunities for physical activity. To accomplish these goals, the White House plans the following endeavors, as written by the First Lady’s office:

  • Launch a new webpage and toolkit that includes step-by-step assistance, resources and information for schools, tribes and organizations on accessing federal programs and grants to combat childhood obesity/diabetes in Indian country at
  • Certify all 14 federally run IHS obstetrics facilities as Baby Friendly Hospitals by 2012.
  • Launch new on-line PSAs featuring Sam Bradford, quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, and Tahnee Robinson, the first female full-blood American Indian athlete to be drafted to the Women’s National Basketball Association. Both are Nike N7 Athlete Ambassadors encouraging Native youth to lead healthy, active lives. Nike N7 is Nike, Inc.’s long-term commitment and comprehensive program to bring access to sports to Native American and Aboriginal communities. For more information, visit and
  • Issue the 25,000-person Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA) Challenge this summer in Indian Country. Six thousand Native youth have already completed the challenge and received a certificate from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sport and Nutrition. To learn more about the Challenge, visit
  • Announce a partnership between the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services programs, the National Society of American Indian Elderly, Boys and Girls Clubs in Indian country, and Southwest Youth Services to place 200 AmeriCorps VISTA Summer Associations in Indian Country to support LMIC implementation, positive youth development, and healthy lifestyles in at least 15 states. In addition, CNCS, with support from the Nike N7 Fund, will place full-time, year-long AmeriCorps VISTA members with organizations promoting physical activity and sport on Native lands.
  • Engage celebrity spokespersons in getting out the message.
  • Encourage 363 “Just Move It” tribal partners to mobilize locally PALA walks, runs and other on-reservation family-oriented activities across Indian country.