The statistics are shocking. Eighty-one percent of Native American adults are obese, with 6% of Native Americans suffering from type 2 diabetes, double than that of Caucasians.
Native experts believe that extreme poverty combined with a loss of their traditional lands and foods have led to the tragic state of nutrition in Native communities. Fortunately, there has been a rising crescendo of Native voices speaking out against the status quo. An early initiative to increase Native access to healthy food is underway.
By way of background, Native American reservations are often food deserts – areas where it is difficult to find fresh produce and unprocessed foods. Many Native American’s living on the reservation only have access to processed and mass-produced food packed with empty calories and harmful ingredients. The situation is not much better for the 60% of Native Americans that live in urban areas. Often these Natives live in poor communities devoid of supermarkets and flush with fast food, where unhealthy dollar menus tend to be standard fare.
Native activists do not want to just increase healthy food options in their communities, they want to increase healthy traditional food options.
Resurgence of Traditional Food Sources
Julie Nielsen, Director of the NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center and a White Earth Nation member, believes that a return to a traditional Native diet is the best way to reduce obesity in her community. She laments the loss of traditional food sources:
Our people have traditionally known how to eat and it was only through the disruption of moving communities that we lost those ways, that we lost the land to grow our food, that we lost the ability to access wild meat for hunting and fish. We’ve been sort of segregated into resource-poor geographies, whereas traditionally, we had what we needed and we used it responsibly.
Fortunately, traditional native cuisine has not been entirely lost. In fact, indigenous culinary options have experienced a resurgence. Chef Sean Sherman, who is Ogala Lakota, exemplifies the renewed interest in traditional native food. For nearly a decade, Sherman has been researching indigenous food systems, which rely solely on elements found in a place’s natural habitat before colonial influences altered the landscape. Now he is taking his findings directly to his community and the public at large. Aided by a record breaking two-thousand plus backers on Kickstarter, Sherman is opening a restaurant called “The Sioux Chef: An Indigenous Kitchen.” Hoping to open the restaurant in six months, Sherman is already offering a sneak-peak of the menu. He plans to work with meats such as bison, smoked turkey, Red Lake walleye, rabbit and duck as they’re available, as well as a wide variety of plants — milkweed pods, cattails, crabapples and sunchokes, among them.
More than a Restaurant, a Social Enterprise
Sherman’s restaurant will not only be unique because of its ingredients; it will be unique because of its scope. He envisions The Sioux Chef as more than just a place to go to for a good meal; he wants it to be a socially-driven enterprise with a communal focus. In addition to a traditional dining area, his blueprints include space for a garden and an educational meeting room. He plans to host weekly rotations of regional and national Native artists, singers, dancers, storytellers, poets, and chefs, who will connect Native culture with food.
It is an exciting time for the Native community, whose nutritional problems have longed been identified but rarely effectively addressed. Now by reaching into their own indigenous tradition, socially-minded, healthy culinary initiatives are taking root.
Boundless opportunities are available to social entrepreneurs striving to connect food and the community. Through project crowdfunding, thousands of people were able to participate in Chef Sean Sherman’s vision, now it’s time to make our own community-based culinary dreams become a reality.
This article was written by attorney Kim Lowe.