The Third Annual Native American Nutrition Conference took place between October 2nd-5th at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, hosted by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the University of Minnesota Healthy Foods Healthy Lives Institute. Every year, hundreds of people gather at this ever growing conference; this year, six hundred people attended. Thanks to the support of the Institute for Advanced Studies, UMM was able to send a team of two staff and four students to take part.
One aspect of the Native American Nutrition Conference was the comparative nature of this gathering of nations. Among the represented communities were members from the Apache and Hopi (Southwest), Suquamish and Alaska Native (Pacific Northwest), Ojibwe and Plains tribes (Midwest), indigenous Hawaiians, and the Seminoles (Southeast). We also had visitors from New Zealand, Guatemala, and Canada. Although challenges faced by this gathering naturally differed according to region, similar threads of poverty, poor nutrition, substance abuse, loss of culture, and other negative impacts of colonization became evident. Through intergenerational connections and traditional food programs, we as indigenous agents can activate change in our communities, and even act as catalysts for spiritual healing. Below are the personal stories of Felicia and Hannah as well as their biggest takeaways.
As a second year at the University of Minnesota, Morris, I began my second semester working at the Center for Small Towns (CST). My current and ongoing project this year is collaborating with the 4 Directions Development office in Red Lake Nation. Their office has a food initiative well underway, and my work is to do some research that will help their larger goal of revitalizing a sovereign and traditional food system that provides healthy and affordable foods in a sustainable manner. Given that this was my CST project, it was highly encouraged that I attended the 2018 Native American Nutrition Conference, not only to meet face to face with one of my community members, but to also gain knowledge in the type of work Red Lake is doing on a wider scale.
While at the event, I had the pleasure of running into members from the Dream of Wild Health organization who work to restore health in Native communities through food and cultural work. It was these reconnections that stuck with me the most while being at the conference. Being in a space with people I had done previous work with, community members I am currently in contact with, and representing CST (and by extension, UMM) was quite exciting! It was pretty eye-opening for me to see how vast and interconnected agricultural, Indigenous, academic, and nutritional communities are. I had never realized how well these branches complemented each other. To hear the same topic from so many different angles was extremely fascinating. Two that stuck out to me where Jane Mt. Pleasant’s (Associate Professor in the Dept. of Horticulture at Cornell University) in depth analysis on energy and protein intake based on the Three Sisters crops: corn, beans, and squash. To compliment this, Kalidas Shetty (Associate Vice President for International Partnerships and Collaborations and Professor of Plant Sciences are North Dakota State University) gave a talk on how food diversity and Indigenous Food Systems, an example being the Three Sisters crops, can combat diet-linked chronic disease. Many of the same topics were discussed in panels, talks, and break group sessions, yet each had something unique to contribute to the overall conversation regarding food, nutrition, and health.
Another experience that has stuck with me was explaining my own work to others in the field. It sounds silly to say, but when I went to the conference to actively engage with what other speakers had to say; I had no idea how much of my own work I would be sharing as well! I knew I was to meet with my community partner, and do a little bit of networking, but there were also conversations regarding my CST project with non-community partners, my own educational pursuits, and my pleasant experiences at UMM. This caught me by surprise simply because I had the initial idea that I would be surrounded by knowledgeable people who would share great words of wisdom; it did not occur to me that I would have influence in these conversations as well. To represent, not only as a student at UMM, but also as an individual, it was quite pleasing to make both work and personal connections with others at the conference. This further solidified my awe at how many different ways all of these knowledge systems can come together in a variety of ways. It makes me very excited to see how far others, and myself, will have come in time for future events!
As some of the key speakers said, “this work is a movement,” meaning that we are creating knowledge, connections, change, and impacts. It was very powerful to be surrounded by so many people who have done so much for their communities, whether in regards to teaching about nutrition, researching health aspects of Indigenous crops, tackling any food deserts, or helping communities through historical trauma; these are only a few of the many examples people are been devoting their time to. It gives me much hope that we can really start seeing positive changes with all of the work being done now, and in future generations.
From time immemorial, the Pawnee and the buffalo have been interconnected. When the first man came from the sky, he took off his hide, and it turned into a buffalo and ran away. The Pawnee and the buffalo took care of one another, and the Pawnee were given seeds to plant hundreds of varieties of corn and beans and other nourishing foods. When the Pawnee were made to move from Nebraska to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, many seed-keepers perished on the journey. When their spirits walked on, their seeds were put into trees, to be given back to the Creator. With the seeds, the knowledge of how to take care of these seeds was lost.
Generations passed, and Debra Echo-Hawk became the Pawnee seed-keeper. Of the hundreds of varieties, only several dozens of seed varieties remained. For years, Echo-Hawk worked between eighteen farms and amongst her home community, building trust and encouraging community members to join the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project. Elders showed her freezer bags of seeds on the brink of fertility. Through years of dedication and community involvement, Echo-Hawk brought back many varieties of seeds. Years later, an ancient buffalo skull was found with a plethora of traditional Pawnee seeds inside.
This story resonated with me deeply because it follows the indigenous narrative of loss and despair we are all familiar with, and leads into a new narrative of hope and the return of traditional practices. Even though many of the Pawnee seeds were lost, the hard work of one dedicated community member brought many of them back from elders. Even after being hunted to near-extinction, the buffalo’s love for the Pawnee is demonstrated through the gift of seeds. Echo-Hawk’s passion for seed-saving inspired both youths and elders to mobilize and become active in traditional Pawnee seed-keeping.
The impact of this conference on my worldview was immeasurable. I began to see the loss narrative as an unfinished version of the resilience and resurgence narrative. I started to understand that one person cannot totally transform a community; however, they can act as a catalyst for the change the community is ready for, and that the community is sometimes more enthusiastic and proactive than anyone would have expected. Contending with historical trauma seems daunting and monolithic. A healthy approach is to untangle one thread at a time, discussing isolated issues like nutrition, breaking it down even further, and taking a small action like planting a garden. Everything starts on this level, and we can only deal with trauma if we grow our love and our community support from seed.
Community innovators all over Indian Country are working diligently to bring back traditional foods as a way to combat poor nutrition rampant throughout Native communities. While apprehending the physical, nutritional impacts of colonization, they are simultaneously contending with the spiritual pain resulting from a loss of culture. My strongest takeaway from the conference was that inter-generational connections are vital. On several occasions, there were three generations of one family sitting together on a panel, discussing the relationship between traditional practices and good life ways. Forging connections between generations is important, because elders need to pass on their traditional knowledge to the next generation.