There’s a reason that one of the first buildings visitors see on Minnesota’s Leech Lake Indian reservation is a diabetes clinic. And that on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, one of the landmarks rising from the prairie is a large, modern kidney dialysis center.
When it comes to population health, the data points on American Indians are bleak. Their life expectancy is 4.2 years lower than the U.S. average, according to the federal Indian Health Service. Heart disease is a leading cause of death. They also are more likely to die of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes or complications from it.
These serious medical conditions have a common risk factor — obesity. Not surprisingly, Indians are also more likely to become obese than are other ethnic groups in the United States. With a 2014 Minnesota Department of Health report linking health concerns in Indians in part to the loss of traditional tribal foods, a population health initiative focusing on nutrition is sorely needed.
That’s why a new philanthropic push by Minnesota’s Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is so critical for the future of tribal communities in Minnesota and across the nation. Minnesota is one of 14 states that is home to more than 100,000 Native Americans.
This week, the southern metro Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which operates two lucrative Minnesota casinos, announced that it is endowing a new national campaign “to improve Native American nutrition.’’ A $5 million contribution from the tribe will launch the Seeds of Native Health initiative to “promote best practices, expand education and encourage the development of new solutions.’’
The tribe, which has become a philanthropic force in Minnesota and in Indian Country, has smartly worked in partnership with leading organizations that have done pioneering work in nutrition, fitness and wellness: the University of Minnesota, the Colorado-based First Nations Development Institute and the New Mexico-based Notah Begay III Foundation. Notah Begay, a Navajo, is a well-known professional golfer, TV commentator and Stanford University graduate.
These organizations bring expertise in working with tribal communities and reputations that will help attract future financial support for this initiative. While the $5 million is a generous sum, public health campaigns require long-term investments and energy to sustain them. In addition, in a nation where junk food is often cheaper and easier to access than healthful foods, improving nutrition anywhere is an uphill battle.
Leadership is needed, along with specialized knowledge about which nutrition practices and campaigns work best for tribal communities. The U.S. government spends less than $1 million annually on American Indian nutrition education. Given the public health crisis on the reservations, that amount is inadequate. The Mdewakanton Sioux Community has taken a strong step to fill the funding void and help find solutions.