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Later this month, the Seeds of Native Health conference will convene in Prior Lake, Minnesota. The conference, a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community, brings together traditional knowledge leaders of Indian Country with leading contemporary scholarship on Native health issues, and presents both in a way that supports and enhances Tribal health sovereignty. 

To begin Native News Online’s exclusive coverage of the conference, we sat down with Karen Diver, citizen of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs at the University of Minnesota, to talk about what the conference offers and why it's important for Indian Country. 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Native News Online: What is the value that this conference brings to tribal communities?

Diver: You know, in the 70s, the average date of death for a Native person was 56 years old, and because of tribal investments in health, wellness, and prevention, it's now in the mid-70s. 

Tribes have invested so much in health and nutrition, and really early investments in health and nutrition goes directly to longevity. We revere our elders so much that having them around longer, having them be healthier, means combating diabetes and other chronic health conditions. It's all tied to nutrition. And, when we look especially at diabetes and kind of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, reducing amputations, it goes to quality of life issues for elders. All of those things are investments that tribes have made and this partnership helps us build the scholarship around that.

Native News Online: Can you talk a little bit about food sovereignty or traditional diets playing a role in tribal citizens' health?

Diver: This is why it's really nice to have a really holistic look at tribal nutrition. You know, tribes don't look at things in silos. And so when we work on things like preservation of our treaty rights and natural resources and stewardship, it's really about that caretaking of traditional lifeways. But those traditional lifeways also include our foods and where they come from, and accessibility. It was interesting to me as a former tribal leader, during the pandemic, how many tribes you saw really, including my own tribe, invest in orchards, gardening programs, seed saving, hoop houses, other things that look at local food supply and availability, and also bringing those traditional foods and securing access to them. You see tribes making agreements with the National Park System. Eastern Band of Cherokee just did an MOU around gathering from traditional homelands that are now part of Park Service. So, all of these things go together in terms of life ways, and life ways that are healthy.

Native News Online: When it comes to the scholarship, what does the scholarship say?

Diver: I think that more so than the scholarship, what we see supporting all of this is actually the longevity changing for Indian Country. 

One of the nice things about this conference is it's not just University of Minnesota folks, it’s people from all across the country coming together to really kind of make health accessible to the tribes and to meet all of their different food security and nutrition needs. 

For my tribe, it’s how do you find swamp tea and chaga and ramps and, using resources at the University of Minnesota, to get technical information out.

We all have different lifeways, right? And connections to our ancestral territories. But then, also the modern day of how do you look at traditional foods. We can be Indigenous people with traditional lifeways and traditional foods and still be contemporary and modern, at the same time. Like Sean Sherman. I think exploring that whole notion of, what does tradition mean for us today, And then bringing in all of those voices from Indian Country just kind of offers a contemporary relevance to the topic, rather than just are you counting calories? Are you watching your sugars? That's what's kind of fun for me to see–just kind of how they make it new and fresh, and accessible and modern.

Native News Online: What do you think is the most important thing for people to know about this conference?

Diver: For me, it's really about empowering tribes and leadership to make local solutions and for allowing space for those conversations to be had of, you know, what might be new, might be innovative, what are best practices, and sharing, across tribes, across health systems, and then also engaging outside of Indian Country, those institutions that can make those things happen.

Native News Online: What else do you want our audience to understand?

Diver: I think that we don't need to recreate the wheel all the time. I mean, we need to learn what's out there. I'm always just so inspired by the creativity and leadership within Indian Country to continue to adapt and grow and look at wellness within our communities. And I think that, through opportunities like this, it allows us to continue to challenge ourselves to meet needs locally, in new and innovative ways. 

I would like to thank the Shakopee Mdewakanton community, because this has been a regular and ongoing investment of theirs in partnership with the University of Minnesota and it brings such real value to tribal communities around creating their own solutions to their own health and food security issues. They were doing this prior to the pandemic, and then during the pandemic, it really brought it home, I think in a different way. 

And so,I think they were kind of visionary in investing in this. And we're grateful for their continued partnership to be able to do this for Indian Country.

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