Visitors to the Upper Midwest’s American Indian nations quickly realize that many young people share a noble goal: returning home after getting their education to strengthen their impoverished communities as educators, entrepreneurs, medical providers and political leaders.
Thanks to a farsighted initiative launched with a generous grant from Minnesota’s Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, 21 ambitious young people will get a chance to realize these dreams while serving another worthy goal — improving nutrition in 10 tribal communities.
The SMSC, located in the southwest metro, operates the Mystic Lake Casino and has become a philanthropic force. Its efforts laudably include a growing focus on the health conditions linked to poor nutrition that plague many American Indians, such as diabetes. In 2015, SMSC launched a $5 million “Seeds of Native Health” campaign to strengthen academic research into Native nutrition and provide community grants to improve food access and push for healthier food choices.
Its latest initiative involves a $200,000 grant to partner with the AmeriCorps VISTA program to create a “cadre of Native Food Sovereignty Fellows.” Teams of VISTA volunteers will live in 10 tribal communities in eight states. Their mission: improve nutrition awareness, launch or enlarge community efforts to grow local food and bolster economic opportunities involving food and agriculture.
SMSC’s gift will help fund the teams’ living allowances during the program’s first year. The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas law school is also a project partner.
The eight states are Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Alaska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Washington. The Minnesota locations are the Lower Sioux Indian Community and the Red Lake Nation near Bemidji. The program will recruit volunteers from these communities — giving young people a résumé-building opportunity while leveraging their local connections to make swift progress.
While VISTA has long worked with Indian nations, this is the first time in its 52 years that a tribal community is providing funding for volunteers’ work. SMSC merits praise for this pragmatic approach to improving public health in often-overlooked locations. Minnesotans not only applaud this good work but look forward to seeing what this community does next.