Tribal leaders are coming together with researchers and healthcare providers to address the dangerous health problems facing many Native Americans, including high rates of heart disease, diabetes and childhood obesity.

All the experts agree on one thing: Healthier food is a key to improving Native American health.

While that may sound simple enough, there are many complex and historical barriers that limit access to such foods for many Native Americans. Overcoming those barriers was a major focus of the historic First Annual Conference for Native American Nutrition in Prior Lake, Minnesota, which drew more than 450 people.

“Native people are the folks to take charge in addressing this nutrition and health crisis,” said Lori Watso of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and chairwoman of the community’s Seeds of Native Health campaign created last year with the American Heart Association to improve Native American health.

“Although we are the ones that are ready to do this work, we do need to engage allies,” she said.

Speakers at the late September conference discussed a wide variety of issues, including innovative approaches to improve health by bridging gaps between indigenous food systems knowledge and the latest food science.

A report was also released during the meeting summarizing findings of an earlier conference that organizers say serves as a strategic guidance for improving Native American health through community-driven efforts.

The report stressed a need for partnerships and collaboration and also found a need for investment in Native American communities, as well as more understanding and flexibility on the part of funders.

“The need for this change needs to be Native-led,” Watso said. “Native people are the ones to identify the work, to do the work and harvest, and to let the world know what is working. Those are the things that are going to restore not only our individual health, but the health, strength and tribal sovereignty of our communities.”

Janie Simms Hipp of the Chickasaw Nation, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and professor of law at the University of Arkansas, also discussed the importance of local action.

Federal interventions often fail because of a one-size-fits-all approach, she said.

“We need unique interventions that we are responsible for ourselves,” Hipp said. “When we do that, we bring this whole conversation and all of the actions that flow from our visions, and those happen at the community level.”

One success story highlighted at the conference was the Lower Sioux Indian Community’s efforts to create a sustainable food system policy.

The tribal council earlier this year passed a resolution approving the “Honoring Little Crow with Healthy and Indigenous Foods Initiative,” which offers food vendors incentives for serving healthy foods at powwows. The initiative also mandates vending machines sell 75 percent healthy foods in the tribe’s government and community center and recreation center.

The community had received a $60,000 grant from the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3) to create a food policy that incorporated traditional language and food knowledge.

“It was really empowering for people to hear — that things really can happen when people have the strength and wherewithal to implement them,” Watso said.

Stacy Hammer of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, a registered dietitian and coordinator of the Lower Sioux Diabetes Program, said the policy would not have come to full fruition without community buy-in and input, especially from Native youth.

“One of our youth asked: ‘Why aren’t we offering our powwow vendors some sort of incentive for providing healthy foods?’ ” Hammer said. “That resonated with us. At our powwows, we see fry bread and junk food; we don’t see healthy options. We brought that idea back to our tribal council and now we are changing that environment.”

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in their Seeds of Native Health national campaign has awarded grants to 51 organizations through its regranting intermediaries NB3 and the First Nations Development Institute.

Watso said the next steps are to continue encouraging tribal communities to re-think their food policies. She said Seeds of Native Health in partnership with AHA is establishing a Native policy innovation fund for policy development, adoption, implementation and evaluation.

“We have the knowledge; we have the people; we do need the resources to do that,” Watso said. “The time is now. There’s a lot of momentum that has been built and continues to build, and Native people are ready to take a stand and address this.”