According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.3 times more likely to suffer from diabetes than Caucasian Americans and are about 4.3 times more likely to die from the disease. Yet 100 years ago, when Native people were still able to eat a healthy, natural diet that emphasized fish and wild game, serious chronic health problems like diabetes, obesity and heart disease were virtually unknown in Indian Country.

That’s just one example of the traditional Native health concepts being taught to American Indian food science and nutrition students in the Woodlands Wisdom, a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and six tribal colleges in three states. The project is designed to address chronic health issues in Native American communities by integrating traditional Native knowledge with scientific methods of discovery in a culturally relevant program of teaching, research and community awareness.

“Although diet and lifestyle intervention is not easy in any population,” the Woodlands Wisdom project’s mission statement declares, “cultural perspectives on health and well-being must be taken into account if there is any prospect for long-term success. Many American Indian people are understandably reluctant to follow advice from mainstream practitioners that does not reflect their culture.” Educating more Native students to become dieticians is one way Woodlands Wisdom hopes to “proactively empower Native American communities to seek solutions within their own culture and traditions to the epidemic of chronic disease.”

The participating tribal colleges are Fond du Lac Tribal & Community College, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, Leech Lake Tribal College, College of Menominee Nation, Turtle Mountain Community College and White Earth Tribal & Community College. After completing their associate’s degree from the tribal college, students transfer to the University of Minnesota to earn a baccalaureate degree in nutrition or other health-related fields. Woodlands Wisdom eventuallyhopes to see more such partnerships develop between tribal colleges and majority universities throughout the country.

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