Conference links poor Native American nutrition to historical trauma

Juan Rey Abeita
Juan Rey Abeita is a Regulatory Monitor in Pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico. He's one of about 400 attendees at the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Stepping away from a breakout session at the First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition, Ryan Bad Heart Bull — a tall, fit man in a dark-blue suit — said the event had been a monumental experience.

"It's been fascinating to learn the ways and the methods that other tribes have been using to provide better options for themselves as well as bring the community together," he said.

He's part Oglala and Hunkpapa Lakota, an enrolled member of the Pine Ridge Reservation. He's also a new registered dietician, and said he's the first Native American to graduate from the University of Minnesota's Dietetic Internship program. Heart Bull said the gathering was historic because it's part of a food movement to reclaim Native American health.

"It's difficult to discuss nutrition in a Native setting — I think in any setting — without discussing the issues that affect society as a whole," he said. "It all goes back to the long history of genocide, oppression and assimilation that we faced as Native people."

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Ryan Bad Heart Bull
Ryan Bad Heart Bull says he's the first Native American to graduate from the University of Minnesota's Dietetic Internship program. He's part Oglala and part Hunkpapa, and says he struggles not being around other indigenous people working on nutrition.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

And it's something he sees when he returns to Pine Ridge, about 600 miles west of Minneapolis.

"I go back and I always feel like I have to have my guard up, unfortunately, because I walk and I see the young men, and they're angry, they're mad," he said. "And you can see the history of oppression, the history of pain, and the racism that we have faced, and alienation as well. I think if you're dealing with issues like this, the last thing anyone cares about is what they're eating."

Facilitator Julie Nielsen, of the White Earth Nation in Minnesota, watched as conference attendees identified knowledge gaps and the resources that are needed.

"The heath disparities that our community faces are among the worst in the nation," she said. "I've heard specific tribes talking about up to 20 to 50 percent of their tribal members experiencing Type 2 diabetes, and not having access to high-quality, fresh and affordable produce so that they can feed themselves and nourish themselves in ways that will create health, not only for them, but for their families."

Speakers at the conference discussed food deserts on reservations, where the only grocery store near families might be a corner store with too many processed foods on the shelves. And off reservations, Native Americans often live in poor communities with fast food restaurants, where dollar menus are readily accessible — and unhealthy.

"Our people have traditionally known how to eat and it was only through the disruption of moving communities that we lost those ways, that we lost the land to grow our food, that we lost the ability to access wild meat for hunting and fish," Nielsen said. "We've been sort of segregated into resource-poor geographies," whereas "traditionally, we had what we needed and we used it responsibly."

Organizers said the sold-out two-day meeting was the first of its kind. Lori Watso is a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) and chair of its Seeds of Native Health campaign. SMSC co-sponsored the conference with the U of M's Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute. Watso said the goal was "to bridge the long-existing gap between indigenous wisdom and academic knowledge or academic research."

Her campaign has just released a report about Native-led initiatives that seek solutions to preventable, diet-related diseases. If current trends continue, she said, Native American youth may live shorter lives than their parents.

"However, I am optimistic," Watso said. "And it lies in our young people. They said that we need to make changes, our Native communities need to make changes in our policies. And let's start with our powwows, for example. Maybe we shouldn't have the kinds of foods that we have at our powwows now, things like fry bread. It's not a traditional food. Or sodas, and other sweetened beverages."

Native people are leading this food movement, she said, for the future and survival of their tribes.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of the Seeds of Native Health campaign and the sponsorship of the conference. The current version is correct.