For the first time, dozens of major philanthropic organizations came together to confront urgent needs in Indian country. From October 14-15, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association hosted representatives from 41 national funders in Minneapolis to talk about how they could collaborate to address health disparities and nutritional deficits among Native Americans. Until now, only 0.3 percent of philanthropic dollars in the United States have gone to Indian country, and that includes funds channeled to organizations working with tribes, not necessarily to the tribes themselves.
Participants included the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, Clinton Foundation, Bush Foundation, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, and the Northwest Area Foundation. Attendees also included high-ranking federal health officials from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Indian Health Service.
Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, president of Echo Hawk Consulting, was co-author of the report “Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities,” released last summer on the urgent need for better food access in Indian country. That call to action was one of the factors that led to this conference. Echo Hawk says, “Native communities have the highest rates of food insecurity in the U.S. and the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, all conditions very much tied to diet.”
Lori Watso, SMSC, secretary/treasurer of the tribe’s Business Council, says poor nutrition has an overwhelming impact on all aspects of life in American Indian communities. “Food is the foundation for our health. Pick any indicator [of well-being] and Native people are disproportionately affected in a bad way. If we don’t have good health resulting from good food, then all of these other things become even more difficult to address. It’s hard to talk about education if our kids don’t feel well enough to do academic work. Or housing. Housing is really, really important. But you can’t build a house, you can’t maintain a house, you can’t build a family or maintain a family very well if you don’t have good health.”
SMSC has committed $5 million over two years to this initiative, making it by far the most significant funder in this space to date. This commitment is in keeping with the tribe’s generosity over the years. It has donated $325 million since the 1990s to support projects in Indian country and to help its neighbors in Minnesota.
Bringing national funders to the table is hugely important. Michael Roberts, Tlingit, president of Firsts Nations Development Institute, which has been channeling the funding it receives into food initiatives in Indian country for several years, says, “We are in this space. We love it that Shakopee is in this space. We love it that AHA is in this space and that it’s going to be bigger. The need is out there. Over the last 3 or 4 years, we’ve been able to fund only 8 percent to 10 percent of the projects that we look at. Bringing more money from Shakopee or AHA or the other funders in the room will only help close that gap between what’s being requested and what is able to be funded. We’re excited about that.”
Roberts adds, “The other reason this is such an interesting strategy is that oftentimes when I go in to talk to a foundation about funding projects in Indian country, the first question I get is, ‘What are the gaming tribes doing to support this initiative?’ If we were a non-Indian organization going in to talk to the same funders, they would not say, ‘What are Donald Trump’s casinos doing to support this?’
“The fact that the Shakopee tribe has made this a priority, not only funded it, but started to bring other funders together around this issue and actually engaged a major organization like the AHA gives a lot of credibility to both the Indian field of diet and health issues, but it also lets us answer that question.”
The issue of nutrition in Indian country is complex, says Jasmine Hall Ratliff, a program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working primary on childhood obesity issues. The RWJF has helped the Notah Begay III Foundation launch its Native Strong effort and funds the AHA’s Voices for Healthy Kids program as well as the SMSC’s Seeds of Native Health campaign.
“The impetus behind obesity is eating too many calories and also the wrong calories, foods that have little to no nutritional value, along with not being able to get the amount of physical activity that’s needed to expend those calories. There are certainly connections between low-income communities and high rates of obesity where you are talking about communities that are food insecure, that don’t have the money to be able to buy healthy food and what they can afford is mostly not healthy.”
Complex issues seldom have easy solutions, and the organizers of this effort realize that meaningful results will require many participants willing to commit their resources for the long haul.
Jill Birnbaum, AHA vice president of advocacy, says, “Our overarching strategy, and really our passion, is improving the health of all communities. Addressing the nutrition crisis across Indian country is a clear need and we will only have an impact with many organizations working together.”
Next steps are already underway. A second convening is being planned, probably for the first quarter of 2016. In the meantime, organizers will be meeting with those who participated in this roundtable to talk about how they want to move forward and how collaborative partnerships can evolve to coordinate programs and create synergy.
“We want to figure out how we all move forward together. The Funders Roundtable was very critical. We can do this on our own, but it will be so much more effective if other folks with resources are brought into the conversation,” says Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law and a co-author of “Feeding Ourselves.”
Or, as Watso says, “I believe Native people can feed each other and heal each other in that way. And who knows, maybe the rest of the world will follow suit.”