Groundbreaking conference advances Native health and nutrition policy efforts

Last week the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) convened nearly 200 Native leaders, Native youth advocates, and national philanthropic organizations to advance policy work relating to nutrition, food access, and health outcomes within Native American communities.

Panel on stage

Fertile Ground II: Growing the Seeds for Native American Health, which was held May 2-4 in Minneapolis focused on determining meaningful steps to increase policy  efforts related to improved nutrition, greater access to healthy foods, enhanced food sovereignty, and better health outcomes in Indian Country.

“We already have so many wonderful examples to rely on as we prepare more policy and advocacy work around health, nutrition and food,” said Lori Watso, chair of the SMSC’s Seeds of Native Health philanthropic campaign to improve Native nutrition. “The bold ideas we discussed at Fertile Ground II have a real opportunity to make change throughout Native Country, and I am so encouraged by this.”

Conference attendees were in strong agreement that critical next steps are needed in two directions:

  • Lessons learned will be brought back to support action by Native American communities to increase food and health sovereignty so that health is improved for everyone.
  • National-level strategies will be developed to align and unite efforts with financial and technical resources.

While participants proposed an array of potential next steps for national movement forward, some also left with their own next steps for their tribe or community. For example, four tribes are planning a tribal health summit in Kansas where Raph Wahwassuck of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and Missty Lechner of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska will incorporate information on how development and adoption of a tribal food code can improve health and support food sovereignty.

“Achieving healthy Native communities is only possible with these Native-led strategies and the collaborative support to achieve them,” said Jill Birnbaum, vice president of advocacy at the American Heart Association.

Other event highlights included a video message from Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; a cooking demonstration by The Sioux Chef; an inspiring message from Notah Begay III; and a presentation from Native youth leaders on their vision for a healthier future. A full report of the conference proceedings will be published in the near future.

Native Americans face the highest rates of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases in the United States. Without a dramatic and sustained investment in shifting these health trends, the future health and wellbeing of Native peoples and tribal nations are in jeopardy. “Fertile Ground II” seeks to explore Native-led advocacy and policy changes that can help address this health crisis.

“Fertile Ground II” is a continuation of the SMSC and AHA’s partnership, begun in 2015, to accelerate the development of a national framework to improve Native American nutrition and health. In October 2015, the two organizations convened representatives from 41 national philanthropic organizations to discuss the food crisis in Indian Country at Fertile Ground: Planting the Seeds for Native American Nutrition and Health. At the conference, participants agreed on concrete steps to develop solutions to this critical issue, including holding a second convening focused on Native-led advocacy and policy work.

About the American Heart Association
The American Heart Association is devoted to saving people from heart disease and stroke – the two leading causes of death in the world. We team with millions of volunteers to fund innovative research, fight for stronger public health policies, and provide lifesaving tools and information to prevent and treat these diseases. The Dallas-based association is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. To learn more or to get involved, call 1-800-AHA-USA1, visit or call any of our offices around the country. 

About the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is a federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribe located southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. With a focus on being a good neighbor, good steward of the earth, and good employer, the SMSC is committed to charitable donations, community partnerships, a healthy environment, and a strong economy. Having donated more than $325 million since opening its Gaming Enterprise in the 1990s, as well as providing more than $500 million in economic development loans to other tribes, the SMSC is the largest philanthropic benefactor for Indian Country nationally and one of the largest charitable givers in Minnesota.

The Seeds of Native Health campaign to improve the nutrition of Native Americans was launched in March 2015 with a $5 million contribution from the SMSC. Through the campaign, the tribe has brought together top experts and philanthropists in an effort to develop permanent solutions to this serious problem. Seeds of Native Health also includes grant-making, education, and research efforts related to Native nutritional health.