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By Mallory Black/Native Health News Alliance
It’s summertime across Indian Country. That means sunflowers, tomatoes, sweet grass and squash are popping up all over the Lower Sioux community garden.
“We have some really nice tomato plants, and the strawberries came in good,” describes Beth O’Keefe, a member of the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Minnesota. “I’m not sure about the cucumbers, but there are some beans and squash that have come up, too.”
O’Keefe, who lives within the rural Lower Sioux Indian Reservation about 100 miles west of Minneapolis, chairs the Lower Sioux Health and Human Services Advisory Committee — an 8-person working group selected by community members — which aims to boost healthy eating and reintroduce indigenous foods back into the community.
In March, the group organized a kickoff event with about 100 community members to share knowledge and input for the garden, which was officially planted across from the tribe’s recreation center and next door to the Woniya Kini treatment facility in June.
O’Keefe said the garden serves as a gathering space that speaks to the interconnectedness of the Lakota people — or Mitakuye Oyasin, a Lakota saying meaning, ‘All are related.’
“When my cousin who lives next door to me does better, I’m going to do better,” O’Keefe said. “So when all of these people in our community eat better and take better care of themselves, it’s going to be better for all of us.”
While the garden is just beginning to take root, it reflects one of the subtle yet powerful environmental changes stirring pride within the Lower Sioux Community.
In collaboration with the American Indian Cancer Foundation (AICAF), the Lower Sioux Indian Community is developing a sustainable food system policy to improve community health outcomes.
The multi-year partnership is part of AICAF’s American Indian Resources for Tribal Health Equity project, which revolves around partnering with tribal communities to advance health equity and normalize healthy eating, physical activity and commercial tobacco cessation in tribal communities.
Amanda Dionne, project coordinator at AICAF and an enrolled member of both the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, says planting the sustainable garden is one example of the committee’s work brought to life.
“The garden is an environmental change where people can be active and grow healthy foods, and it also symbolizes community and togetherness,” Dionne said. “It’s fulfilling a purpose and nourishing families. I think it touches closer to what they’re going through in their community.”
Some of the health issues affecting the Lower Sioux Community are not uncommon in other Native American communities, including high rates of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease, said Stacy Hammer (Lower Sioux), a registered dietician and coordinator of the Lower Sioux Diabetes Program.
“Most of the issues can be attributed to diet, coupled with lifestyle choices,” she added.
Because obesity, diabetes and heart disease are all associated with a higher risk for cancer, Hammer said the committee is actively working to educate community members that these issues can be avoided through a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Hungry for Change
In the beginning, committee members laid a foundation for their work by narrowing down what they believed were the primary causes of the health issues in their community.
Chief among them were policy and environmental issues, like how health and wellness were perceived by members of the community, the kinds of foods being served at powwows and other events, and the lack of access to convenient, healthy foods.
Hammer said tribal members often voice challenges in finding healthy snack alternatives in particular.
“That is something the community has said they would love to have is more convenient access, so that they can walk to the convenience store and grab fresh fruit,” Hammer said.
In addition to asking stores to provide healthier snacks and planting a sustainable garden, other objectives guiding the advisory committee’s work include:
Through these efforts, the committee hopes to create a mind shift for all members of the community to adopt healthier lifestyles.
Inspiring Community-Driven Change
In addition to their work, Hammer, who also serves on the committee, has introduced a new menu for the tribe’s Elder Nutrition Program.
Lower Sioux seniors are served at their local casino, so Hammer partnered with their chefs to offer healthier, low-sodium meals.
“There’s actual cooking going on in that kitchen now,” Hammer said. “I’m getting some good feedback from the elders saying they’re happy and that they feel like they’re getting a nutritious meal once a day.”
As community buy-in grows, the committee hopes small, subtle changes like these will eventually spur a turnaround of health issues.
This summer, committee members are moving forward in drafting their first-ever tribal wellness policy for the community.
Some ideas under consideration include offering incentives for food vendors to serve healthy, indigenous foods at powwows and gatherings, and for stores to stock healthier, more nutritious foods and beverages.
O’Keefe said she hopes their work extends beyond the boundaries of their reservation and from one generation to the next. By creating a policy framework for change, the committee wants to serve as inspiration for more tribes to follow suit.
“Our most important resources are our members of the Native community,” O’Keefe said. “All of us on the committee feel like we’re all being heard, and I see everybody’s involvement in this. It’s not just one of us. You can really see where everybody has a voice.”
Visit the Native Health News Alliance website for more news and information about improving healthy food access in Indian Country.