Nutrition and Health on Native American Reservations

A diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthful whole food is a privilege for many Americans; however, it remains elusive for many Native Americans, especially those living in geographically isolated areas. Insufficient access to fresh and healthy food options continues to be an issue on at least 60 reservations in the United states, and this grim fact has an inordinate impact on the long-term health outcomes of those residents. As a result, occurrences of nutrition-related disease are still high among Native Americans.

Lack of access to healthy food choices have directly impacted the rate of diabetes for Native Americans. Today, Native Americans suffer from the highest prevalence of diabetes in the country, and the mortality rate of diabetes among Native Americans is three times higher than that of all other races in the country, according to the federally operated Indian Health Service (IHS).

Additionally, the Office of Minority Health (part of Health and Human Services) reports that Native people have higher rates of several risk factors that can lead to heart disease, including two that are nutrition-related: obesity and high blood pressure. Food insecurity among Native Americans is also especially detrimental to younger generations, as the issue of childhood obesity continues to gain national attention. Obesity in children is a common symptom of food insecurity, which affects 1 in 4 American Indian families. Diabetes among American Indian teens has dramatically increased; between 1994 – 2004, diabetes cases rose 68 percent among Native youth ages 15 – 19.

Because of the pervasiveness of this problem, and the adverse effects that touch all members of the community, Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) takes numerous approaches with reservation programs to combat food insecurity, including immediate relief and long-term solutions that support healthier communities.

These solutions include practical fixes, such as assisting the most vulnerable members of the community by delivering healthy food options on a regular basis. Programs like this solve an immediate need while shining a light on the areas where additional support is still necessary.

To learn more about what you can do to support PWNA’s efforts and help stave off the effects of insufficient nutrition for those dealing with food insecurity, please visit

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Recently in Native News

Partnership with Native Americans strives to keep you abreast of trending news and events concerning Native Americans, and have compiled our favorite stories on Native life from the month of May. Stay up to date with more articles by following us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Stanford Powwow celebrates Native American history, culture via Santa Cruz Sentinel

  • “The gatherings — marked annually by Native Americans throughout the U.S. — are an opportunity for people to join in dance and song, while renewing friendships and celebrating the rich culture of American Indians.”

Native Americans Keep Grasslands Traditions Alive With Dance via CBS Denver

  • “For hundreds of years Native Americans have expressed themselves through clothing and dance. In those traditional dances, every piece of clothing and every move has a deep significance, honoring a particular idea or way of life. “When the villagers moved, we were very nomadic tribes,” said Grace Gillett, the executive director of the Denver Pow Wow.”

National Native American Veterans Memorial to be Erected in Washington via U.S. Department of Defense

  • “A memorial to Native American veterans will be erected on the outside grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The anticipated dedication of the National Native American Veterans Memorial is Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2020, according to Rebecca Trautmann, project manager of the memorial.”

Native American Dem leader running for congressional seat via KOB4

  • “The former leader of the New Mexico Democratic Party is officially running for an open congressional seat and hopes to become the nation’s first Native American congresswoman. Debra Haaland announced her bid Tuesday after recently filing a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission to run for the state’s 1st Congressional District.”

Objects returned to Native American leader Massasoit’s burial site in Warren via Providence Journal

  • “Members of the Mashpee tribe were joined at the gathering by those from the Pocasset Tribe, the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag, Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe, Troy (Fall River) band of the Wampanoag, Assonet Band of the Wampanoag, the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to listen to speakers, join in prayer and hear honor songs. Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell celebrated that his people were “victorious” in helping correct the desecration.”
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Remembrance of Native Traditions on Memorial Day

What does your culture mean to you? Why do you practice your traditions? How do these tie into today’s society?

In remembrance of tradition, culture, and values passed along many generations, I ask: How do you remember your culture? I have always questioned what kind of role my culture plays in today’s society, and how it stays relevant. Today, more than ever, our cultures and traditions are at risk of dying out, our languages, ceremonies, and old ideals. Across the many different cultures throughout the tribes in this country, we remember the similarities across Native peoples.

We’ve always had a respect for our tribe’s culture, other tribal cultures, and the place these teachings came from: our ancestors. Memorial Day is a time that brings families and neighbors together to remember those fallen in service to our country. These sacrifices are not easily forgotten, and sometimes remembering them is hard too.

Whether or not we realize it, our traditions are a part of our everyday life and way of thinking, so much so that we may routinely make choices based on teachings we learned early in our lives, choices like service to others, service to our tribe, or in today’s terms, service to our country.

Another tradition across Native cultures is the rate of military service. Many will note that Native Americans have the highest per capita rate of military service of any minority group. I’ve always wondered why so many of our people continue to sacrifice themselves for a country that has committed so many wrongs to our people in the past, and it dawned on me that we still protect our own. In trying times, our neighbors are there for us, and we push on as a whole. Despite what has happened to our people historically, and the impact still occurring today, we continue to fight for our country because we were raised on the values that keep our people in the highest regard.

For the upcoming holiday, I ask that you remember the sacrifices that Native peoples, and all peoples, have made, for those brave enough to serve are a tribe unto themselves, a culture of their own. I ask that you celebrate lives lost, be thankful for those still here, and keep in your prayers those who still serve.  Remember to be safe on the roads, and remember to enjoy yourself, which is the express freedom we have thanks to those who fight for the independence of our country.

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Graduation Rates & American Indian Education

Reality:  By today’s standards, about 7 in 10 of the American Indian students who start kindergarten will graduate from high school.

Put another way, the average freshman graduation rate for Native students who will complete public high school within 4 years of the first time they start 9th grade is 70 percent, compared to a national average of 82 percent, according to NCES (the National Center for Education Statistics, 2012-13 data). This excludes BIE (Bureau of Indian Education) schools, which are federally underfunded and produce the lowest educational attainment levels. US News reports that the national Native high school graduation rate is 69 percent across all types of schools – but the BIE school graduation rate is only 53 percent. BIE schools serve eight percent of Native American students, or 48,000 students in 24 states.

Reality:  More than 60% of U.S. high school students go on to college, while only 17% of American Indian students are able to continue their education after high school, facing a number of challenges the average student does not encounter.

Lack of funding and resources paired with geographic isolation contribute to the reality that many Native students have trouble moving on to college. Lack of cultural inclusion in off-reservation schools is also a factor — consider the inaccuracies taught in U.S. history classes about Christopher Columbus, the pilgrims, and the founding fathers.

Reality:  While 28 percent of Americans complete college, only 13 percent of Native Americans hold a college degree.

From elementary to post-secondary school, 35 percent of Native youth grow up in impoverishment. Life without a college degree can often mean hardship and lost opportunity. Four-year college grads earn $1 million more in a lifetime, and two-year college grads earn $10,000 more per year than someone who only graduates high school.

Education is an important cornerstone for self-sufficiency and quality of life. For every scholarship we are able to award through AIEF (American Indian Education Fund), a program of Partnership With Native Americans, there is another qualified student wanting to attend college and waiting for funding.

Dante’ is an honor roll student from Alaska, of Yupik Eskimo, Athabascan Indian, and Native Hawaiian heritage, and was awarded an AIEF scholarship. He enjoys playing sports and is an excellent student with a dream of a college education. Already, Dante’ is serving his tribal community by meeting with lawmakers about cleaning up contaminated lands and waters for the future generations and participating in Alaska Native and Hawaiian cultural traditions.

Dante’ shares, “I believe in hard work! I have worked hard to prepare myself for college and for a productive life.” He has also held several jobs, including at a ski area, a car dealership and the Alaska Native Village Corporation on the way to making his dream a reality.

All AIEF services are paid for through contributions from compassionate individuals across the United States. We encourage you to join them in supporting a brighter future for students like Dante’ through the American Indian Education Fund. Learn more at

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Support New Mothers and Maternal Health in Native American Communities

Mother’s Day is a time to honor mothers of every kind, and to celebrate the innovations and methods of support available to Native American mothers residing in tribal communities. Cherished in the lives of not only their children but also their community at large, the values that mothers instill in their families spread across their own tribe and beyond. It makes sense then, that Native communities would offer programming to support new mothers, often the most vulnerable time in a new parent’s life. Prenatal and post-natal wellness checks, parenting classes, and immunization checks are some of the ways tribal programs assist new mothers in Native communities.

Native American mothers often face more high-risk pregnancies and maternal complications than their non-Native counterparts do, and the infant mortality rate is 4.4 percent less for Native Americans than for other ethnicities in the U.S. The birthing risks are due in part to inadequate nutrition, diabetes and other health issues preconception. Native women have a harder time accessing preventative healthcare on the reservations, and the barriers may include something as simple as transportation to doctor appointments or consistency of primary care.

Indian Health Services, the federal health program for American Indians, also works to improve outcomes for Native American mothers by compiling information on what to expect during pregnancy, how to protect the health of the baby, and resources for new mothers in their local communities. Unfortunately, these Indian health hospitals with full obstetrical services are rare on the reservations PWNA serves, focusing more on critical illness than preventative care.

Partnership With Native Americans supports tribal health and wellness programs with our Baby Baskets and Cradle Club services, available through our Northern Plains Reservation Aid (NPRA) and Southwest Reservation Aid (SWRA) programs. Baby baskets are a new parent “starter kit” replete with essentials for newborn care, along with personal care items for mom, and given to all new moms at participating partner hospitals before they are discharged. The Baby Basket and Cradle Club services also help tribal health programs ensure a healthy start for infants, by providing additional supplies, diapers and even strollers that moms can earn once the baby’s immunizations are completed.

Roslyn is 32 years old with four children, and Julia Grace (two months old) is her first daughter! The family is living in a one-bedroom apartment in an elderly complex located on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Housing is scarce and Roslyn is on a tribal wait list, but in the meantime, she makes the best of cramped quarters and has other long-term goals.

”I want a bigger home – it will all work out, and I don’t want to give up my dreams of college,” she said, grateful for all the content in the baby basket she received before leaving the hospital.

Baskets of essential items, like the one Roslyn received, can help new moms enjoy their newborn and ease the adjustment once they return home. The baskets include items such as blankets, bottles, diapers, skin creams, and bath supplies, which can cost families quite a bit and are not always available in the remote communities on the reservations. Services like these also impart a sense of care and comfort for new moms.

Sustaining families and traditions are among the greatest things Native American mothers can do, and on this Mother’s Day it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the mothers in your life, and educate yourself on all the ways you can support them as they support future generations!

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Challenges to Education Within Native American Communities

Although attending college is a goal for many high school students, for many Native American youth, attending college is something of a distant dream out of reach. Only 13 percent of Native Americans 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28 percent of other ethnic groups.

Today, many Native youth express a desire to attend college, but a number of barriers to success still exist along the way. Getting to college is often difficult due to the geographical distances of many tribal communities from university towns. Native populations often struggle without computers and Internet access at home, which could provide an avenue for completing online curriculum. Additionally, once Native youth make their way to college, they are often underrepresented on campus, finding themselves without a community for the first time, and teaching in schools often lacks cultural understanding and relevance.

Although barriers to higher education cannot be eradicated overnight, many Native communities are working hard to provide youth with resources and encouragement to further their education and deliver sustainable contributions within their tribes and society at large.

Access to college has been further improved by a number of scholarship programs that exist solely for Native Americans, and which can help students manage the cost of attending college. As university expenses continue to rise around the country, the prevalence of these programs is a welcome relief to many college-bound students. As more Native youth attend college, the path is more welcoming and clearer to those considering whether college is an option for them.

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Recently in Native News

Continuing with our practice of keeping you apprised of Native news and relevant articles, please enjoy our favorite stories on Native life from the month of April. Stay up to date with more articles by following us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Climate Change In Louisiana Changes Diets Of Native Americans via NPR

  • “Native American tribes in Louisiana have a deep attachment to place and that means trying to stay on the land, even as it becomes harder to grow gardens, even as shrimping is dwindling and crabbing is dwindling. There are people who are just trying to stick it out and to brainstorm about more innovative ways of staying self-sufficient.”

Commissioner Starts to Press Cleveland Indians About Logo via The New York Times

  • “Among those who think it is time for the club to decisively move away from the logo is the Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, who in continuing discussions with the team’s ownership is beginning to apply a little bit of pressure on the club to come up with a plan of action.”

Native American Tribes Fear End of Federal Heating Help via U.S. News

  • “Tribal officials in states with harsh winters fear what would happen without the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP. Ending it, as Trump’s budget blueprint would do, could disproportionately affect Native Americans, backers of the program say.”

Native American Culture Week ends with activities, performances via The State Hornet

  • “Native American Culture Week at Sacramento State came to a close on Friday with its final event, “Go Native,” an immersive celebration of Native American culture showcased through song, dance, art and history.”

Champion for Change Awarded Truman Scholarship via Center for Native American Youth

  • “Rory Taylor (Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma), a Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) Champion for Change, has just been named a recipient of the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship award. The Truman Scholarship is a highly competitive program designed for college juniors who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in public service.”
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Rain Dance, Correcting the Myth

As a Lakota, I always found it stereotypical when asked about the rain dance. In all my life, I had never heard of any rain dance taught in Lakota culture. Why? Because, we don’t practice it. The assumption of the practice still persists, however, and it’s worth investigating where this idea originated.

It was only recently, for instance, that I learned the rain dance is actually a fairly common practice among southern tribes. These tribes typically reside in dry climates, where water is essential to life, making it something of a cornerstone in those cultures. Rain, specifically water, is important to sustaining life for all communities, but for some this precious resource is scarce.

“Amani.” Rain.

One of the tribes that practices the rain dance still today is the Ohlone, located in a small town in the southern central part of California. And in a small town, it is said, “when you call a rain dance, word gets around.” In Ohlone culture, the dance is greatly respected, with pure intent and high significance. After a three-year drought, they attributed the returning rain to their dances.

“Magazu.” Rain.

To the Lakota, the Wakinyans or thunder-beings, were considered messengers of the coming spring, and were thought to bring the rain from the West. But to the Lakota, rain can mean a few things. The Wakinyans can bring rain and renew the land, or bring strong storms and destroy the land. In either scenario, the Lakota viewed rain as a signal of new growth to follow, meaning the time to start planting was near.

Still, weather was never the best signal of a new season on the plains. More than rain, the Lakota relied on a lunar calendar based on the moon cycle, with 12 distinct moons throughout the year. Typically, the first rains came close to the Moon of Fattening, around the month of April. The next was the Moon of Planting, in May, where planting and farming began for the summer. Lakota plants, consisting mostly of berries, corn and some fruits, were harvested a few months later in August.

In contrast to the Ohlone, who practiced the dance fairly often, I don’t recall stories of bad drought in which a rain dance was ever used by the Lakota. Sometimes, it’s too easy to view all native communities as sharing a single culture, with the same beliefs and traditions. This just isn’t the case.

Hopefully, we can continue to inform and correct these generalizations and stereotypes so all native cultures can be respected and distinguished. The rain dance is hardly the only misconception that exists about Indian peoples. By pausing to consider where ideas like this originate, one can begin to appreciate and understand the myriad cultural traditions and histories of the many native tribes around the country.

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Gardens as a Solution to Combat Food Insecurity

Before choosing to eat healthy, one must have access to healthy foods, and today, families on at least 60 reservations across the U.S. struggle with uncertain access to sufficient and proper nutrition, in short “food insecurity.”

Lack of local access to or affordability of healthy food is an unfortunate reality for one in four Native American families. In fact, these families are 400 percent more likely to report not having enough to eat, compared with other U.S. households. And although the U.S. government provides commodities to help feed low-income Native families, as they do for other low-income Americans, these foods are often sorely lacking in nutritional value.

Unsurprisingly, this lack of healthy nutrition has led to a wide array of health issues among all age groups. In fact, Native Americans have the highest prevalence of diabetes in the country, and are nearly twice as likely to die from diabetes as other Americans.

With support from individual and organizational donors, Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) addresses food insecurity across 12 states. Aimed at supporting healthier communities and building brighter futures, PWNA’s food solutions focus on accessibility to healthy food, as well as nutrition training, garden support and garden training.

PWNA’s Project Grow tackles the problem at the root, empowering individuals and reservation communities to access healthier foods through gardening. Just as gardening yields its bounty of healthy food for years to come, so too do the efforts undertaken by PWNA and tribal communities to address long-term solutions surrounding nutritional health. Through support and training on how to plant and raise fresh produce, communities are taking control of their own food sources. Many of PWNA’s reservation partners are requesting healthy cooking classes and training on food canning and preservation.

Using its mobile training units, PWNA connects Native American chefs and local cooks who collaborate on introducing fresh produce and healthier recipes to remote reservation communities. Educational demonstrations further show residents how to cook healthier recipes utilizing locally available foods.

Tribal communities are also integrating their own traditions and culture into these garden projects, encouraging members to get involved and stay engaged in the project of building sustainable food sources that improve lives. By energizing the community with resources and education, PWNA supports community-led solutions with impact for years to come.

Through all these efforts, PWNA and its reservation partners are motivating and equipping tribal citizens with knowledge and healthy nutrition habits that will trickle down to the next generations. These initiatives support a return to a healthier, more traditional diet that is free of processed foods. As individuals adopt these tactics, entire communities benefit from a shared, sustainable solution that alleviates the compound effects of food insecurity.

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World Health Day and Health Care in Tribal Communities

World Health Day is celebrated on April 7 every year to mark the anniversary of the founding of WHO (World Health Organization) in 1948. Annually, a theme highlights a priority area of public health and provides opportunities for every community to engage in activities that can lead to better health.

In PWNA’s service area, the main source of health care is Indian Health Service (I.H.S.), and in a previous blog on Healthcare for Native Americans, we discussed the treaty obligations of the U.S. and how the I.H.S. remains grossly underfunded. A 2016 I.H.S. fact sheet indicates their per capita health care expenditure rests at $3,688 for Native Americans, whereas the health expenditure for the U.S. population is $9,523. In addition, there are just 500 Indian health facilities serving the 567 federally recognized tribes with 2.2 million American Indian and Alaska Native members.

As a nation, America recognizes the importance of accessible, quality health care, and for those of us residing in urban areas, a plethora of urgent care clinics, specialty physicians and full-service hospitals exist. In Rapid City, South Dakota, a town of 70,000 people, urgent care centers are sprouting up in every corner and, within a two-mile radius, I have a choice of two different urgent care centers. The National Institute for Health Care Reform reports nearly 9,000 of these centers exist across the U.S., yet very few are within reach of tribal communities.

For the remote and geographically-isolated populations PWNA serves, our Program Partners and others working directly with tribal members are the link connecting important information and resources to individuals challenged with scarce access to health facilities. So many residents, particularly the homebound, rely on the Community Health Representative (CHR) or laypersons to observe any potential health issues and to do so during the shortest of visits. For instance, they may rely on the person delivering their daily meals, or even the driver picking them up for an appointment. Early detection and intervention is critical for disease prevention, and is especially critical in our rural communities.

PWNA’s most frequently requested service, Healthy Living, supports preventative healthcare and other care providers working within tribal communities. Healthy Living helps these Program Partners engage and motivate community members to learn more about preventing diseases and making healthy choices. Through this service we support on average about 500 partners on about 50 reservations, who are offering health classes, conducting home visits and assisting people with appointments.

One by one, tribal communities are fighting health disparities with whatever resources they have available. For instance, on the San Carlos Reservation the CHR program and the Elderly Feeding Center act as PWNA’s health partners. Staff from both agencies work together to help residents like Matthew, an 81-year-old Elder living in the community of Bylas, Arizona. Partially blind and living alone, Matthew struggles with high blood pressure and needs frequent visits for vital sign checks and medication. Although previous referrals for Matthew to have a full-time caregiver were declined, his deteriorating eye condition only increases his need for care.

Rosalie, a CHR assisting Matthew along with her colleague Susie, has served as a CHR for 42 years, almost as long as the program has existed.

“I know the whole Bylas community and they know me. I talk to them in Apache and it’s good that I speak to them that way because some don’t speak English,” Rosalie says.

Veronica delivers Matthew’s meals from the Senior Center (supported by PWNA’s Food service), and says, “I love knowing that I’ve contributed to the Elders in some form.”

In recognition of World Health Day, PWNA honors those dedicated individuals like Rosalie, Susie and Veronica, and the many programs throughout Indian country that work hard to combat the alarming health disparities in our nation’s tribal communities.

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