Improving the Health of the Nation’s Native American and Alaska Native populations

April 23, 2018
in Healthy Food Access

The release of the Seeds of Native Health Semi-Annual Report by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community reminds us again of the significant challenges to the health and well-being of Native peoples.  Arguably, no set of domestic policies implemented by the United States since the nation’s founding has had a greater detrimental impact on the health of a population of people than this nation’s Indian policies.

These policies—have resulted in the loss of culture, language, and the ancestral lands and traditional diets that had nourished Native Americans for eons. Some tribal members were moved thousands of miles from fertile homelands to non-arable soil, while others saw their lands shrink, in some cases to a few square miles, and in other cases to a complete loss of their homelands. Poverty quickly followed.

In an attempt to address the significant levels of food insecurity that existed on and around the nation’s Indian reservations, the United States government created and implemented food distribution programs, under which they would provide Native Americans with a variety of foods.[1] This apparent act of contrition came with its own significant problems. A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that the program provided two times the required total grains and only about half of the fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy amounts to meet dietary recommendations.[2]

The health and social impacts of these policies and programs are truly staggering. According to the American Indian Cancer Foundation, the nation’s Native American population was once among the healthiest people in the world, but today the opposite is true. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of adult Native Americans are overweight or obese.[3]  More than 15 percent of Native Americans suffer from type-2 diabetes, more than double the rate among Caucasians.[4] American Indians and Alaska Natives have a life expectancy that is about 4 years less than the general U.S. population (all race/ethnicities), and they have higher rates of mortality from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.[5]

Grassroot advocates have been working for a number of years to reverse these trends. Some tribes, public health officials and local advocates have taken important steps to improve access to healthier foods and to reintroduce native culture to local diets.  These localized efforts have recently been infused with new attention, energy and funding to help further raise awareness of the problem, create opportunities for positive change and develop long-term solutions. Two developments in particular are notable.

First, Voices for Healthy Kids,commissioned Feeding Ourselves, a landmark report released in 2015, surveying the state of Native American food access and health disparities. The report issued a call to action for greater investment in food and dietary health work to benefit Native peoples.

Second, at almost the same time, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) launched Seeds of Native Health, a multifaceted national campaign to improve Native American nutrition.   The SMSC, a tribe in Minnesota, is known for its leading role in philanthropy in Indian Country. Because they had developed a wellness program for their own members, created an organic farm and operate a healthy food market, the SMSC first-hand experience inspired them to commit $10 million over four years to the campaign. Seeds of Native Health includes grant-making, sharing of best practices, capacity-building, sponsored research, and educational initiatives.

Voices for Healthy Kids became an early strategic partner in the SMSC’s Seeds campaign. The tribe and Voices for Healthy Kids collaborated to organize two national convenings: Fertile Ground (2015) and Fertile Ground II (2016).  The first was a roundtable of 41 philanthropic organizations from across the country to discuss the needs and opportunities to invest in Native nutrition and food access work. The second focused on creating a roadmap for Native-led policy changes to improve health and nutrition. Both conferences provided important exposure and validation of the critical needs in this area.

And the collaboration involving the SMSC and Voices for Healthy Kids continues and deepens. Most recently, the SMSC’s Seeds of Native Health and Voices for Healthy Kids co-funded a new re-granting program through the American Indian Cancer Foundation (AICAF). Created seven years ago to address the growing cancer burdens among Native Americans, the AICAF is administering and providing technical assistance for the new Fertile Ground Grant Program. Kris Rhodes, AICAF’s CEO, says that the initial round of grants is designed to support community conversations to build a foundation for the creation and implementation of policies that will improve access to healthy, indigenous foods. That initial effort has created a lot of enthusiasm among tribes.

“We were pleased with the tremendous number of applicants in the initial round of grants. There is a real sense of excitement among tribal and urban communities in the efforts to reclaim Indigenous ways,” says Rhodes.

Central to the effort is the belief that success will come if it is driven and organized by the nation’s tribes because they not only have a deep understanding of the problem and its challenges, but because they also know what will work and what is best for their members.

In the report on the Fertile Ground II convening, Janie Simms Hipp of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative was quoted as saying, “When Indian Country lost its ability to feed itself, through whatever means, we lost that part of ourselves that supports our ability to thrive. It is only by regaining our foods that will we be able to restore our health…” And Rhodes is even more succinct in her description of the importance of those foods to the nation’s Native populations, “For us, our traditional food is medicine.”

While the health and nutrition problems that were an outgrowth of the nation’s Indian policies will not be easily addressed, change is starting to happen, change that gives Rhodes and others confidence in the future. “My hope is that 100 years from now Native people have access to indigenous foods, they know how to harvest those foods, there is a robust native foods economy within tribal communities and ultimately we will once again be the healthiest people in the world,” she said.


Read the Seeds of Native Health Semi-Annual Report

Learn more about the Seeds of Native Health campaign


[1] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services. Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Nutrition Program Fact Sheet, 2018.
[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services. FDPIR Food Package Nutritional Quality: Report to Congress, 2008.
[3] Indian Health Service. Healthy Weight for Life: A Vision for Healthy Weight Across the Lifespan of American Indians and Alaska Natives, Actions for Health Care Teams and Leaders. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Indian Health Service, 2011.
[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2017. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services; 2017.
[5] Indian Health Service. Indian Health Disparities. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Indian health Service, 2017.