Courtesy Echo Hawk Consulting
SMSC Chairman Charlie Vig (left) talks with Janie Hipp (Chickasaw), director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at The University of Arkansas

Culture Is Prevention: Key 'Fertile Ground' Roundtable Discussion

Kristin Butler

Culture is prevention. Cultural reclamation is itself a healthy eating intervention.

This was one key conversational topic and takeaway point from the Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable, held October 14-15, organized by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) and the American Heart Association (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.

"Culture is something we need to validate for transformation and change," Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, president of Echo Hawk Consulting, told ICTMN. "We need to get people to understand that to increase the opportunities for investment in cultural frameworks for positive change in our communities."

While many Native people and organizations are keenly aware of the need to reclaim traditional foodways to restore Native health, the roundtable helped uplift these conversations to a national level of exposure. "It helped highlight the inner connection of the underlying root causes of health disparities, including a history of trauma, forced removal, and a couple hundred years of bad U.S. federal policy," Echo Hawk said.

Additionally, poverty and a lack of access to capital are health issues, she added. "We have to deepen the conversation about addressing poverty if we want to really start to get at some of these issues," Echo Hawk said.

The conclusion that embracing and nourishing culture is central to reversing these social determinants of health and improving food access was reached by group discussion participants: Duke University “Healthy Eating Research,” Minnesota State Office for the Corporation for National and Community Service, Wholesome Wave, Indian Health Service, University of Minnesota, American Indian Cancer Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Heart Association, and the Notah Begay III Foundation.

"They came up with the whole idea of the recognition of the power of culture as prevention," Echo Hawk said. "They made recommendations for funders to further explore and come up with a framework to support this type of work. A lot of times in the past, people asked, 'What is culture?' Because it's something you can't easily measure. We hope these conversations will inspire people to pick up and run with the idea and that we can do more advocacy about that."

The SMSC and AHA hosted representatives from 41 national, regional, local and Native funders, as well as federal and state agencies, in Minneapolis to spark a dialogue and networking around food access and social determinants of health in Indian country, and ways to affect sustainable change.

Roundtable discussions were intended to serve as a catalyst for vital next steps to increase relationship building, engagement, education, collaboration, and investment in Indian country.

"When we were strong in our foods on this continent we were strong people – we were healthier," said Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. "And for Indigenous peoples it all starts with the food. When Indian Country lost its ability to feed itself, through whatever means, we lost that part of ourselves that supports our ability to thrive.

"It is only by regaining our foods that will we be able to restore our health, our resilience as people and secure the stability and diversification within our communities and local economies. But the challenges to secure that future require different approaches than those used in other communities ... if for no other reason than our languages, cultural traditions, and the unique legal status of our communities."

The synergy created through the roundtable deep discussions remains palpable long after the October convening. "The goodwill, positive feedback, and momentum that has been generated as a result of this meeting is truly inspiring and has laid an important foundation to accomplish much together for Native American people and communities," said SMSC Chairman Charlie Vig and AHA CEO Nancy Brown in their official message from "Fertile Ground" convening partners.

A second convening is in the works, likely to be held in spring 2016 at a location to be announced. The follow-up roundtable will be focused on tribal, grassroots, state, inter-tribal, and national advocacy and policy change.

Check back with Indian Country Today Media Network for our follow-up article on a key take-away discussion topic from the Fertile Ground Funders' Roundtable: Children and youth are critical to food culture change.

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