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Can Native American Groups Combat Obesity By Returning To Indigenous Diets?

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Change may be on the horizon for Native Americans in the United States, a group suffering from a slew of chronic health conditions stemming from poor diets and food insecurity.

The Shakopee Mdewkanton Sioux Community (SMSC), a federally recognized sovereign tribe based in Minnesota, recently announced the launch of a philanthropic campaign to improve Native American nutrition. The campaign, named Seeds of Native Health, aims to build awareness of the Native American nutrition problem among members of that population and restore traditional diets with the help of grassroots practitioners, researchers, and advocates.

“Nutrition is very poor among many of our fellow Native Americans, which leads to major health problems,” SMSC Chairman Charlie Vig wrote in press release. “Our Community has a tradition of helping other tribes and Native American people. The SMSC is committed to making a major contribution and bringing others together to help develop permanent solutions to this serious problem.”

While the nation’s ongoing obesity epidemic has touched various groups, it has significantly affected Native Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, nearly one out of three American Indians and Alaskan Natives of all ages are obese. Half of the women in this group count also count as overweight. The excess weight brought on a host of chronic health conditions, particularly Type II Diabetes, a disease that members of this population develop during their adolescence.

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Experts trace the obesity problem to poverty and limited access to fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious food that’s often more expensive than flour and commodity goods. The majority of Native American enclaves in the United States fit the profile of food deserts, defined as low-income areas located further than a mile from a fully stocked supermarket. Residents, in turn, go to gas stations and convenience stores, which are often chock-full of junk food.

“If you’re going to the store and you have no food, you’re not buying endive, you’re buying for your children the thing that’s going to feed as many children as possible and make them feel full,” Suzan Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne and Muscogee tribes and President of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native American rights organization, told Food Safety News in 2012.

The placement of Native Americans in food deserts didn’t occur by happenstance. Public health advocates have taken into account the imperialistic campaigns of the early 1800s that relegated Native American tribes to reservations where they had little access to their original food sources and couldn’t engage in an active lifestyle of hunting and gathering. By the end of the 19th century, federal government restrictions on movement and rations of flour, lard, and sugar replaced the indigenous diet of meat, protein, fruits, and vegetables that kept Native American healthy. That change helped bring forth the health crisis among Native Americans today.

In recent years, some Native American populations have sought to turn back the hands of time and raise the nutritional standards in their communities. The University of Kansas’ American Indian Health and Diet Project, for example, connects Native Americans on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation with wild rice, corn, and other traditional foods. Profits from that project fund the White Earth Land Recovery Project, an effort to preserve original land practices. The University of North Carolina also started gardens through its Healthy, Native North Carolinians project.

There’s also been some legislative progress in this area. Last November, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed the United States’ first junk food tax into law as part of an effort to curb consumption of healthy food and fund wellness projects among the more than 300,000 people living on the reservation that spans three states. The tax, which goes into effect next month, will generate an estimated $1 million annually for greenhouses, food processing and storage facilities, traditional food cooking classes, community gardens, and other initiatives to promote healthy eating.

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The new food tax, in tandem with a spring 2014 amendment that removed a five percent tribal sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables, may help Native American communities engage in discussion about how to best live a healthy lifestyle.

“I’ve been telling the councils, food can either empower us and make us strong, or it can kill us. Healthy food is not just our tradition, it’s our identity. This is the start of a return to food sovereignty,” Denisa Livingston, a community health advocate with the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), a grassroots organization of community volunteers that authored the legislation, told Mother Jones.

Fulfilling the goal of food sovereignty for Native Americans, however, is a huge undertaking that will take an untold number of dollars. Seeds of Native Health, the SMSC’s latest philanthropic effort for Native Americans nationally, represents what’s arguably the largest investment of a previously underserved community.

In a meeting during which leaders announced the initiative, SMSC leaders said that they hope to attract more partners and donors that understand the gravity of the current health epidemic. “We really trust our communities and our people to tell us what they need,” Lori Watso, the tribe’s secretary-treasurer, told the Minnesota Star Tribune. “They may come to us and say that [they] need to actually grow food; they may need to develop educational programs to help their community members understand how to utilize this food.”