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Escaping the Silos


By Rebecca Landsberry / Native Health News Alliance

If the saying is true: “You are what you eat,” then good nutrition is imperative for healthy communities.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) and American Heart Association (AHA) co-hosted Fertile Ground II: Growing the Seeds of Native Health in Minneapolis, Minn., May 2-4, creating targeted dialogue between tribal representatives, funders and government agencies aimed at raising awareness of the food crisis in Indian Country.

Fertile Ground I was an initial gathering of more than 40 tribal, nonprofit and funding organizations Oct. 14-15, 2015. The success of the first event spurred the creation of Fertile Ground II only six months later.

The Seeds of Native Health campaign to improve the nutrition of Native Americans was launched in March 2015 with a $5 million contribution from the SMSC. Through the campaign, the tribe has brought together top experts and philanthropists in an effort to develop permanent solutions to this problem.

Event organizers saw the conference as a way to continue defining the scope of the issue and joining forces to address the impact of historical trauma as it relates to food systems in a way that supports tribal sovereignty.

More than 200 tribal members, health care providers and philanthropy representatives attended panel presentations, participated in targeted work groups and exchanged best practices for Native communities when it comes to developing food policy and programs at the local, tribal, state and federal levels.

Addressing “diabesity” in Indian Country

According to the Centers for Disease Control, rates of death due to stroke and heart disease are higher among American Indians and Alaska Natives than any other racial or ethnic group.

“Diabesity” is a term Denisa Livingston (Navajo) came up with to describe what’s happening in the Navajo Nation where it is estimated that one out of every three citizens is diabetic.

As a community health advocate for the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance, she sees firsthand how her community is affected by healthy foods, or a lack thereof.

“It’s the first time in history that we’re dying from ‘diabesity’ and not starvation,” Livingston said.

Evidence indicates that diet has a direct connection to health and wellness, moving beyond diabetes to other diseases and multiple types of cancer, including colon cancer, in Indian Country.

Executive Director of the American Indian Cancer Foundation Kris Rhodes (Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa) said cancer mortality rates in Indian Country continue to rise, despite decreases across other racial and ethnic groups.

To each of the advocates, providers and tribal members in attendance at the event – the ones working toward creating healthier communities – the task is clear: create healthier foods, better access to those foods and an improved production process for Native nations.

The first step on the path is re-thinking and enhancing existing food policy.

Janie Sims Hipp (Chickasaw) is the founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. As part of the initiative, she works to develop nutrition policies that are in alignment with tribal sovereignty.

“If you want to destroy a people, you take away the power of their food,” Hipp said. “If you want to build a people back up, you build them up through their food.”

She believes tribes are the best administrators of their own food programs and that no two will be identical, given the unique attributes and available resources of each nation.  Since policy development transcends intertribal, federal, transportation and geographic issues, the challenges are great.

“In order for tribal governments to really form that protection around our people and achieve some of these health goals that we have, we really have to think about what we chew,” Hipp said.

Escaping the silos in Native food policy

Despite the challenges, Indigenous people are continuing to discover how developing policy at the tribal level with input from citizens can create healthier communities.

Rhodes spoke about the tendency of leadership to strategize without consulting or input from tribal members.

“Our communities are kind of fed up with us [healthcare providers] working in silos,” Rhodes said.

According to Rhodes, instead of developing health policies inside a program-specific vacuum, which can be void of participation by key stakeholders, effective policy should be created outside of the silo. She emphasized that when it comes to Native health, a holistic approach must engage youth, elders, clinical staff and policymakers under a unified framework.

Nick Tilsen (Oglala Lakota) is the executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. He agreed that the way to transformation is through the tribal community members themselves.

“The architects to change Indian Country are the people in those communities that have been there for the long haul, who are going to be there for the long haul,” Tilsen said.

Valerie Segrest, project coordinator for Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, spoke on how sharing traditional food and knowledge benefits tribal nations through connecting citizens with their history.

“The environment is what shapes and forms our culture, so if we can start taking better control and empowering ourselves with our own wellness by eating our [Native] foods, by being active on the land – all of those things – reciprocity happens,” Segrest said.

She stressed that culture is the best medicine for treating historical trauma in Native communities.

“Those are all the ingredients we need to treat and prevent addiction, which is the true root cause of heart disease, diabetes, suicide, cancer – all of those things are just symptoms of the larger problem,” Segrest said.

Moccasins on the ground

The Seeds of Native Health campaign includes grant-making, education, and research efforts related to Native nutritional health. During the conference, event chair and SMSC member representative Lori Watso announced the establishment of the Native Policy Innovation Fund (NPIF), which is an initiative aimed at addressing key issues in Native food through awareness, advocacy and implementation.

Through the fund, tribes, organizations and nonprofits can apply for grants, which would be awarded to develop policy, infrastructure and data reflective and inclusive of Indian Country for food sovereignty initiatives.

“I’m hopeful that funders will have a keen interest soon, because we already have things to jump off of. There are amazing ideas here and amazing people ready to take this forward,” Watso said.

The American Heart Association was the first to join SMSC in establishing the fund.

Midge LaPorte Epstein, executive vice president of the Southwest Affiliate at the AHA, said a partnership with the SMSC was a natural fit because of the existing intertribal support base for sharing resources, information and best practices.

“These Ideas have come from the community, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we just have to pick which of these wonderful ideas we can start with,” LaPorte Epstein said.

The NPIF continues to expand its support base to by identifying and including more foundations, health organizations and funders from outside of Indian Country with missions seeking to empower Native communities to assert their tribal sovereignty by taking the reins of food programs.

Conference materials are available on the Fertile Ground II Resource Page provided by event organizers from Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the AHA and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The inaugural Conference on Native Nutritional Health is set for Sept. 26-27 at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Minneapolis, Minn.

With the establishment of deeper research supporting policy development in Indian Country, the next step is to mobilize.

“With those things in place, I don’t think we’ll be lacking for moccasins on the ground,” Watso said. “People are empowered and they want to get their hands dirty.”


© Native Health News Alliance. This story was produced with support from the American Heart Association.

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