American Indians are nearly twice as likely as whites to become obese. They're more than twice as likely to have Type II diabetes. Among children, it's predicted that rates of obesity and diabetes will soon reach 50 percent.

Leaders from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community say better nutrition is the solution. Yet each year, the federal government spends less than $1 million on Indian nutrition education.

The tribe, alarmed by this picture, is partnering with the University of Minnesota and two nonprofit organizations to launch Seeds of Native Health, a national program aimed at reducing disparities in Indian communities' access to healthful food. It's an effort that builds on the tribe's local environmental and nutrition initiatives, and positions the tribe as a national leader in Indian nutrition.

"The state of nutrition for Native people has been one of silent crisis for generations," said tribal Vice Chairman Keith Anderson.

The Shakopee tribe jump-started the initiative and is kicking in $5 million to get it off the ground.

Members of the Tribal Business Council on Tuesday joined U administrators and leaders from partner organizations First Nations Development Institute and the Notah Begay III Foundation to announce the program. They offered few concrete details, but said the plan is to focus on education and research, while allowing communities to decide what will work best for them.

"We really trust our communities and our people to tell us what they need," said Lori Watso, the tribe's secretary-treasurer. "They may come to us and say that [they] need to actually grow food; they may need to develop educational programs to help their community members understand how to utilize this food."

Leaders hope to attract more partners and donors.

"This is not happening in any other section of Indian Country across America," said Notah Begay, a professional golfer who founded the eponymous foundation in New Mexico in 2005 with a focus on eliminating childhood obesity and Type II diabetes among Indian youths.

Seeds of Native Health will provide models that can be used in other communities with limited resources, said Michael Roberts, president of the Colorado-based First Nations Development Institute. It also represents a new funding source for an issue that's experienced "severe underinvestment," he said.

The Shakopee tribe rose to tremendous wealth, thanks to its Little Six and Mystic Lake casinos. Tribal members have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations and loans, as well as contributions to the U.

The U's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences will provide academic and research resources to Seeds of Native Health, including a major nutrition study.

The tribe already has some environmental and nutrition initiatives in place, including an organic grocery store that sells food grown on south-metro reservation lands.

Emma Nelson • 952-746-3287