Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux
Community's donation will support three U-led projects.
Although they suffer more than other cultural
groups from diet-related chronic diseases, there lacks widely
available nutritional information specific to American Indian
A $1 million donation to University of Minnesota
researchers is slated to increase the amount of information available
on American Indian nutritional health.
The money a gift from the Shakopee Mdewakanton
Sioux Community, an Indian tribe residing on historically Dakota
land southwest of the Twin Cities will help fund three
That work includes the creation of a public database
of nutritional information and a study analyzing obstacles in
academic research of American Indian food-related traditions and
experiences. The donation will also help pay for an annual conferences
focused on Native American nutrition and food access.
Lori Watso, who serves as the tribe's secretary
and treasurer, said she was initially apprehensive to fund the
University's research projects because of her own experience with
Native American health.
"I know [of] Native people [who] have access
to healthy food and know how to use it, so I was a little reluctant,"
she said. "But people explained to me how really important this
is because of the very little research that's done about Native
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community tasked the
University with creating new ways of increasing access to American
Indian nutritional information, Watso said.
The University's Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives
Institute will co-host the annual conferences with the tribe,
Director Mindy Kurzer said.
The conferences, which Kurzer said will be the
first of their kind, aim to stimulate research by identifying
knowledge gaps in American Indian nutrition, she said.
"We'd like to influence policymakers and funders
and try to generate interest in people who could actually make
a difference so we could continue this work," she said.
At this point, scientists are aware that Native
Americans are more likely than white Americans to be diagnosed
with diabetes and obesity, Watso said. In some tribes, about half
of all members deal with both.
But little is done to combat nutritional problems
in American Indian diets because few doctors understand the issue,
"When people don't have an understanding, resources
don't get devoted to the issue," she said. "If there's a problem,
and we can see it through research, it's easier for organizations
to invest in it."
Plus, American Indians are also underrepresented
in science fields, said study lead Craig Hassel, who is also a
food science and nutrition associate professor.
He said the University teaches nutrition from
a Western biomedical perspective and doesn't accommodate the customs
followed in other cultures.
"We may point to some of other cultures' foods
and talk about what's healthy in their foods, but we don't give
serious attention to the knowledge system that created those foods,"
In scientific fields, he said, Native Americans
sometimes feel the need to sacrifice their identity and cultural
customs because they're not considered "legitimate" knowledge.
"We're sitting right now, in the Twin Cities,
on what was considered Dakota land," Hassel said. "But we don't
talk at all about the knowledge of the Dakota people and how they
were not only able to survive but to thrive using their knowledge
of the land, of food and health."
If researchers overcome cultural barriers, he
said, health will likely be improved for everyone, outside indigenous
"It's really important that we get solid information
that is accessible to people," Watso said.
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