SMSC Vice Chairman Keith Anderson with Crystal Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and president and CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting
Courtesy Echo Hawk Consulting
SMSC Vice Chairman Keith Anderson with Crystal Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and president and CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting, at the Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable, held October 14-15 in Minneapolis

Seeds of Native Health: Shakopee, NB3F Take Vital Steps to Affect Change

Kristin Butler

One tribe has heeded a call to action to create a national campaign dedicated to improving Indian nutrition, reversing chronic health problems, reducing extreme poverty and reclaiming traditional foodways in Indian country.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) is leading Seeds of Native Health. The multifaceted campaign involves grant-making, sharing of best practices, capacity-building, sponsored research and educational initiatives.

The midwest tribe has committed $5 million to Seeds of Native Health, making it by far the most significant funder in the space of improving Native food access and health outcomes to date. Of those funds, the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F) will receive a total of $1.1 million from the SMSC for re-granting to projects that will increase access to healthy food and nutrition education among Native youth. So far, NB3F has named six grant award winners totaling $118,000.

RELATED: Shakopee Mdewakanton and National Partners Launch $5 Million Native Nutrition Campaign

"Shakopee and their commitment and allocation—it's not a small check," NB3F founder Notah Begay, of the Navajo, San Felipe Pueblo and Isleta Pueblo tribes, told Indian Country Today Media Network.

The SMSC's generous contribution and dedication of time and resources was made as a result of "their own research, understanding and acknowledgement that diabetes is as big an epidemic as we've ever faced throughout history," Begay said. "They're setting the bar high and they're trying to affect change. That's the type of leadership we need to tackle this issue."

The tribe is widely respected for its deep-seated tradition of generosity to tribal communities, having donated more than $325 million since its 1992 foray into gaming.

The tribe has convened several strategic partners, including the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F), the American Heart Association, First Nations Development Institute, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, The University of Arkansas School of Law's Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and the University of Minnesota.

"Native Americans are sovereign peoples, but we cannot solve every problem on our own," said Shakopee Chairman Charlie Vig in the Fertile Ground Final Report, which summarized conversations held during an October convening of national funders in Minneapolis, centered on the critical needs and opportunities to improve Native American food access and nutritional health. "That is why Shakopee is committed to bringing together the best minds and organizations to find workable, long-term solutions…."

Shakopee Chairman Charlie Vig at the Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable in Minneapolis (Courtesy Echo Hawk Consulting)

The Seeds of Native Health campaign for Indigenous nutrition hones in on three main topic areas: food access, education and research.

Food access: Without access to healthy food, a nutritious diet and good health are unattainable. Most experts agree that creating access to healthy food is 80 percent of the battle in addressing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues.

RELATED: What Is a Food Desert? Do You Live In One? 23.5 Million In This Country Do

Education: Less than $1 million is spent by the U.S. government each year on Indian nutrition education. Few tribal governments have a designated food, nutrition or agriculture employee, and too few young people in Indian country choose careers in food production, agronomy, agriculture lending, nutrition, public health, food law, or related fields which have a bearing on good diets.
The Seeds of Native Health campaign is funding the development of curriculum and educational programs to nurture the skills and knowledge necessary to make a meaningful impact on Indian nutrition at the local and national level.

Research: The true extent of poor nutrition, the local barriers to good food, the dietary causes of health disparity, the healthfulness of traditional Native American diets, and the possible solutions all need further study.

By funding original research projects, the Seeds of Native Health campaign will add to the body of knowledge about this largely ignored crisis and help identify attainable solutions to the critical dietary challenges faced by Native communities.

“Native American tribes are in the best position to improve the health of their own people,” said SMSC secretary/treasurer Lori Watso, a champion for the campaign who has spent much of her career in community public health. “Funding and technical assistance through these grants will help tribes develop their own nutritional health strategies.”

Through the Seeds of Native Health initiative, in October, NB3F awarded six grants totaling $118,000 to tribes and Native-led organizations working to improve nutrition and access to healthy foods for their children and communities. The projects reflect the importance of community-driven efforts in reducing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes among Native children and their families.

“Improving access to healthy foods and increasing nutrition education for our children will require varying approaches and strategies. Informing the strategies is understanding the assets and challenges in our Native communities,” said Olivia Roanhorse, director of NB3F’s Native Strong Program. “This funding supports community health assessments and planning to do this.”

Lori Watso, Shakopee secretary/treasurer (left), listens to Jill Birnbaum (center), vice president of State Advocacy & Public Health at the American Heart Association (Courtesy Echo Hawk Consulting)

RELATED: NB3F Names 'Native Strong: Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures' Grantees

The NB3F's Capacity Building Grantees are:

Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, Red Lake Local Food Initiative, Minnesota, $20,000: The goal of this project is to conduct a community food/health assessment to measure food production, consumption, and lifestyle activity trends. This will result in an action plan to develop a local, healthy, community-based food system.

Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, REDCO Community Food Sovereignty Initiative: Assessing and Addressing Food Insecurity on the Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota, $20,000: The goal of this project is to conduct a reservation-wide food sovereignty assessment and utilize other outreach and feedback mechanisms (talking circles, surveys, etc.) to gather input from tribal citizens regarding the relationship of food to health. 

Tucson Indian Center, Finding strengths in the local food environment to promote healthier food consumption among American Indian community members in Tucson, Arizona, $18,000: The project is a collaborative project between the Tucson Indian Center and the University of Arizona Center for American Indian Resilience. The goal of the project is to conduct a community health assessment and implement community planning activities to create an action plan that will be used by the center for long-term planning to address childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes in the Tucson American Indian community.

—American Indian Health Research and Education Alliance, Community Health Assessment on Youth Diabetes Risk, Kansas, $20,000: The project will take place in both the Kickapoo Tribe and Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation communities to develop a sustainable action plan, specific to each community, that will help address the issues related to childhood obesity and diabetes by using information from health assessments and surveys.

Blackfeet Community College, From Need to Seed: A Community Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Obesity and Diabetes, Montana, $20,000: The project will focus on healthy nutrition and assessments of youth children (ages 2-7) and their parents, who will be encouraged to participate in talking circles. This will result in a community action plan to address childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes among Blackfeet Tribal Nation members. 

Urban Native Education Alliance, Building Capacity for Urban Native Youth Health Project, Washington, $20,000: The goal of this project is to bring together Native youth and community to discuss nutrition and healthy food knowledge and access by conducting a community (health) needs assessment. 

Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable

Further indicative of the SMSC's commitment to inspiring change, the tribe recently teamed up with the American Heart Association (AHA) to host representatives from 41 national, regional, local and Native funders, as well as federal and state agencies, at its Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable, held October 14-15 in Minneapolis. The stakeholders put their heads together to start a pro-active dialogue about effective ways to address critical health disparities and nutritional deficits among Native Americans. Before the SMSC and AHA raised this awareness to national funders, a mere 0.3 percent of philanthropic dollars in the United States went to Indian country—and that even counts funds given to organizations that work with tribes.

The “Fertile Ground” roundtable was convened by the SMSC and AHA with the assistance of Echo Hawk Consulting. Co-sponsors included the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Project, the Minnesota Food Funders Network, KivaSun, Lakota Funds, and Tanka Bar.

"No one entity can pull this off," said Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. "We need collaboration among all relevant players who support the building of strong access to healthy food systems in Indian country. We need funders to be bold, to be brave, and to go where others have not gone before and to invest in Indian country."

Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw), second from left, with other nonprofit representatives at the Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable in Minneapolis (Courtesy Echo Hawk Consulting)

RELATED: Call to Action: Major Funders Discuss Health and Funding in Indian Country

A compelling report called “Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities” inspired this gathering of major funders, including the Clinton Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, amongst others.

RELATED: Report: Healthy, Traditional Foods Essential for Tribes’ Survival

"Feeding Ourselves:, commissioned by the American Heart Association and its Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AHA, was co-authored by Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, president of Echo Hawk Consulting; Janie Hipp; and Wilson Pipestem, founder of Pipestem Law and Ietan Consulting, and an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and an Osage headright holder.

The Feeding Ourselves report explores the complex historical and contemporary challenges to Natives' access to healthy food, childhood obesity, and health disparities. It's solution-based, detailing some of the proven approaches to beginning to solve key issues such as food deserts.

It details and underscores the dire need for increased food access in Indian country. Native communities are plagued by obesity, diabetes and heart disease, conditions directly tied to diet and caused by a series of traumas including colonization, forced removal, displacement and assimilation, which cut tribes off from their traditional homelands and foods.

"This report really creates a way to synthesize great work and uplift it in one place," Echo Hawk said.

The "Feeding Ourselves" document looks at the social determinants and root causes of health disparities in Indian country, while also bringing to light projects affecting positive change, and consolidates the various information into one comprehensible report. Begay calls the "Feeding Ourselves" document "mandatory reading" for funders and people in "every single health and wellness division or department in Indian country."

The issue of food access can be so severe in many rural Native communities. "People are stunned to see in so many reservation communities that people are making a 200-mile roundtrip to the grocery store," Echo Hawk said. "This report is pulling the lid off things like that and connecting the dots of a longstanding history of colonization and what U.S. federal policy has done to Indians. It has undermined tribal economies and access to traditional food sources that once made us healthy. For many people, the report is eye-opening." 

The report's executive summary is available online here

Among the key takeaways from the roundtable was that more funding and resources are necessary to make these sustainable changes. "The lack of access to capital and credit for American Indian food producers, communities, and tribes and the subsequent underinvestment and underdevelopment of Indian Country are serious and fundamental challenges that must be prioritized and addressed through increased investment, infrastructure development, and policy changes," states the Fertile Ground Final Report summarizing the roundtable discussions.

The report emphasizes that some projects are "shovel-ready"; they just need a small amount of funding to make a huge difference for Native peoples. The convening partners and experts featured at Fertile Ground can help identify those projects for funders.

As Mike Roberts, president of First Nations Development Institute aptly stated: “Indian country is ripe for investment.”

Check back with Indian Country Today Media Network next week for more coverage on stakeholder conversations about creating sustainable change concerning nutrition and food access in Indian country: "Culture Is Prevention: Key 'Fertile Ground' Roundtable Discussion."

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