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Indigenous Wisdom and Academic Learning Converge at Native Nutrition Conference

The First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition was a milestone in efforts to improve the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Organizers and participants alike say the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition held September 26-27 at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Minnesota was a milestone in the effort to foster urgently needed improvements in the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“The conference was amazing; it was a huge success,” says Lori Watso, SMSC, chair of Seeds of Native Health. The event attracted over 450 participants from more than 40 tribes in 32 states, as well as participants from indigenous communities in other countries.

Courtesy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

Participants review poster presentations on the latest academic research on Native nutrition at the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition.

Seeds of Native Health is a two-year initiative begun in 2015 when the SMSC decided to commit $5 million to supporting nutritional interventions as one way of addressing the health crisis in Indian country. Watso says one inspiration for that decision was the understanding that “if health trends continue the way they are today, our youth will be the first generation not to outlive their parents.”

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The nutrition conference was co-hosted by the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute at the University of Minnesota. Mindy Kurzer, a professor at the university and director of the institute, says, “We accomplished our goal, which was to bring together indigenous wisdom and academic knowledge, Natives and non-Natives, from diverse disciplines, as well as practitioners, funders, members of the non-profit sector and tribal leaders” to address devastating health challenges in AI/AN communities.

Asked what the highlights of the conference were, Watso was quick to respond: the speakers.

Courtesy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

Justin Huenemann Navajo Nation) provides advice to participants on navigating grant opportunities available through his organization, the Notah Begay III Foundation.

Among them was Holly Hunts, a consumer economist from Montana State University who has been working with the federal Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) program. The FDPIR food package put together by the USDA gets really high scores on the agency’s healthy eating index, she says, so she decided to take a closer look. What she found was disquieting.

“I started looking at how they did their numbers,” she says. “They look at all the foods that are available from their USDA list, not the food that one person would get to bring home. You look at the list and see five different kinds of cereal, but then you notice that there is only one box of cereal per person per month in the food package. When USDA looks at the total nutrients, they count all five boxes, not just the one box that somebody gets.”

Then she started looking at fruits and vegetables. “If you look online you would be really impressed—they’ve got 45 different kinds of vegetables available. But what you need to look at is that a person only gets 11 units of vegetables a month. There are about 1.5 cups per unit, so that’s 19.5 cups of vegetables a month. I looked at nutrition recommendations for 14- to 18-year-old boys and found that USDA recommends they have 3 cups of vegetables per day, or 90 cups of vegetables per month.” The food package contains only 16 percent of the vegetables the USDA itself recommends for that population. “USDA should be providing at least the foods that they recommend all Americans eat. If that means increasing their budget, then they should increase their budget,” says Hunt.

Another example: “I went to the USDA fact sheet and looked at a 10.5-ounce can of vegetable soup. The fact sheet says that you can add water and then you have two cups of vegetables. I went to our food lab and separated out the vegetables from a can of vegetarian vegetable soup and measured them. Being generous, there’s 3/4 of a cup of vegetables in there, not two cups.”

“So there’s a pattern for these commodity foods that the nutrient value is overestimated,” she says, noting that she does not mean to denigrate FDPIR, which she sees as a potential game-changer in Indian country.

“IHS spends $1.4 billion a year on diabetes, but the whole FDPIR program is only $119 million a year. It would be so much cheaper to spend a little more to buy vegetables for people than to pay for dialysis or amputation. Even if you want to be a hardass economist, it still works out that it’s cheaper to provide people high quality food than it is to care for them when they’re sick,” says Hunts.

Courtesy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

Conference participants discuss knowledge gaps and resources needed to advance work to improve Native nutrition during breakout sessions at the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition.

Hunts does see progress, however. At a FDPIR program in Montana she visited there were buffalo and blue corn meal on the shelf. At Spirit Lake in North Dakota, “they now have whole wheat tortillas, which is huge. Before this, they had no bread. They have flour but they don’t have baking soda, baking powder, salt or anything that you would use to make something out of the flour. At Spirit Lake, they think they are now going to get wild rice and frozen salmon,” says Hunts. “Those are the traditional foods that they’ve been fighting for since I came along, so I think that is super positive.”

The next step, says Hunts, is for tribal producers to start growing the food for FDPIR. “The movement that I want to be part of is that tribal growers should be the ones that are getting those lucrative USDA contracts so that the Navajo, for example, can grow their own beef and corn, the USDA buys that and then that’s what’s available at the food center.”

Partnership for Native Health’s Abigail Echo-Hawk, Kitkehahki Band of Pawnee Nation/Upper Athabascan People of Mentasta Village, Alaska, talked about how to bridge the gap between what tribal elders know and the hard numbers funders want to see. “States, the feds, funders, non-profits and philanthropic institutions really want to know the numbers, but a lot of the knowledge in our tribal communities exists in other ways,” she says.

Courtesy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

Gary Ferguson Unangan/Aleut), Community Health Services Senior Director at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, highlights innovative work being done in Indian Country to improve Native nutrition.

Community-based participatory research is one means to achieve that nexus. “As Native peoples we have been scientists since time began. We charted the skies for sea travel, we used plants and animals for medicine and we had many traditional practices that have sustained us through our pre-colonization times to colonization.

“Often people talk about Native communities as historically underserved,” she continues, “but I don’t believe that. Historically we have always cared for one another and taken care of one another. My history was full of love, compassion and caring for each other. We have been underserved colonially, institutionally. And research has failed us in that way. Many times it has been predatory and harmful.”

But Native communities are not the same as they were 30 years ago. There is far more expertise, more opportunities and more experience. Research can now be designed to meet the needs of the researcher and the community both, says Hunts.

“We need to tell our own stories,” she says, and in so doing grow the careers of Native researchers. “We need our people in the highest places of research so that they are the ones making funding decisions and building the evidence.”

One such young researcher is Jordan Hearod, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a doctoral student in health promotion at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, who spoke about the THRIVE (Tribal Health Resilience in Vulnerable Environments) project, which looks at how to design grocery stores to help people choose healthy foods over less healthy alternatives. It is a community-based participatory research program involving the University of Oklahoma and two large tribes in southeastern Oklahoma.

Courtesy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler opens the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition.

“Research in Native communities is typically helicopter research where the researcher comes in and takes what he wants and then leaves. The whole goal of this project is not to do that. It’s to build tribal capacity and to work with the community, not to do research on the community or in the community,” he says. The conference, he says, “was super enlightening. I hope it continues. We learned a lot and got our voices heard.”

That is one take away from the conference, says Watso. “People felt very empowered. We reaffirmed that we as Native people are the ones to take charge in improving our own nutritional health and our nutritional destiny.”

Another take away, she says, is that “we need to engage more allies in the work, to work with our higher educational institutions, and tribal colleges in particular, in research, and with those in the area of funding and philanthropy. Our governments should also be involved in this work.”

“The payoff,” she says, “is that not only does our health improve but I firmly believe that the health and the lives of those around us, non-Natives, improve also.”

SMSC’s Seeds of Native Health campaign is coming to the end of its initial two-year stretch, having sponsored two funders’ roundtables last year to bring the issues of health and nutrition to other philanthropic organizations as well as this conference bringing indigenous and academic knowledge about food and health to a single forum. “We will be talking very soon about the future of Seeds of Native Health,” says Watso, and “we’re definitely planning a second annual Native nutrition conference for the fall of 2017.”

Courtesy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

Wakinyan Fiddler Cheyenne River Sioux ) performs a grass dance at the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition’s evening reception.

Printed materials from this conference are available on the Seeds of Native Health website. Within the next couple of weeks videos of all the conference presentations will be posted on You Tube and the website will have links to those as well.

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