How “Three Sisters” and Michelle Obama are Helping Indian Country
Museum director Kevin Gover (back row, fourth from the right), First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of local Native American children at the White House's "Let's Move" harvest, June 3, 2011. (Photo by Nedra Darling - DOI)
By Kevin Gover (Pawnee), Director of the National Museum of the American Indian
Bad health remains a major concern for Indian communities throughout the United States. Historically poor access to health care, the absence of recreational opportunities, and bad diets lead to a crisis of obesity and associated health concerns such as diabetes in many parts of Indian country. Indian children are not immune from this epidemic. To the contrary, the onset of adult diabetes in children has become alarmingly common.
Good food is the key component to good health. Traditional Native diets were replete with both wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables and lean meats. During the early decades of the reservation period, those diets were supplanted by government rations consisting of white flour, sugar, cheese, and lard. Survival required the consumption of these commodities in unhealthy amounts, and they became the staples of Native diets on reservations. While these foods kept the people alive, they also made them chronically ill. One food exemplifies the problem. Frybread is widely thought of as a traditional Native food. It’s easy to make. Flour and salt are mixed with water and then fried in lard. But while frybread is a tasty treat, as a dietary staple it is a health nightmare.
Childhood obesity is not just a problem in Indian Country. Throughout the United States, our young people too often eat poorly and exercise little. Fast food, junk food, and lack of exercise are producing historic rates of childhood obesity in the United States. To combat this problem, First Lady Michele Obama is heading a program called “Let’s Move!” The program encourages parents and children to eat healthy foods and exercise.
Mrs. Obama has established an element of the program directed to Native children specifically. Let’s Move! In Indian Country has four main goals: to create a healthy start on life, develop healthy learning, increase physical activity, and improve access to affordable, healthy and traditional foods.
Last week Mrs. Obama hosted an event at the White House to kick off the Indian Country program. About two dozen Native kids from the D.C. area came to the White House to help Mrs. Obama harvest the early crops from the White House garden and to plant the garden’s summer crops. The White House has been consulting with the NMAI about traditional Native foods, and I was invited to participate in the harvest and planting.
From left to right: Basketball star Tahnee Robinson (Shoshone/Pawnee/Lakota), Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians, Kevin Gover, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Sam Bradford (Cherokee), quarterback of the St. Louis Rams. (Photo by Nedra Darling - DOI)
A number of prominent Native people from the D.C. area were also asked to help with the planting and harvesting, including Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echohawk, Indian Health Service Director Yvette Roubideaux, and National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel. We were joined by two prominent Native athletes, Sam Bradford (Cherokee) and Tahnee Robinson (Shoshone/Pawnee/Lakota), who are working with the White House and with Nike to promote healthy lifestyles for Native kids. Sam Bradford is the quarterback of the St. Louis Rams and last year’s Rookie of the Year in the National Football League. Tahnee Robinson is the star of last year’s University of Nevada women’s basketball team and has now entered the Women’s National Basketball Association as a member of the Connecticut Sun. (Tahnee also happens to be the daughter of my first cousin Sara Rose Robinson.)
Sam, Tahnee, and Mrs. Obama were the stars of the show, along with the kids. Not surprisingly, we adults were star-struck, but the kids took it all in stride.
Perhaps the best known products of Native agriculture in North America are corn, beans, and squash, "the
Three Sisters.” These plants work together in the garden and in our diets. Beans produce nitrogen in the soil to feed the corn and squash. Corn provides a sturdy stalk for the beans to climb. Squash plants provide ground cover to keep down weeds and keep the ground moist. The three in combination make for a very healthy start toward a balanced diet.
So the kids and the First Lady planted the Three Sisters in the garden on the South Lawn of White House. Mrs. Obama then called on the kids to harvest the lettuce, kale, turnips, and other spring crops in the garden. They took to the job with great enthusiasm and surprising efficiency. Within a few minutes, neat piles of greens were stacked on ice, ready for the White House kitchen. The foods harvested by the kids were served at a White House dinner for visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The excess will be donated to local programs for the homeless.
All of this was exciting enough, but we were greeted with one more special surprise. It just so happened that President Obama was returning from a trip that afternoon. So the little kids and we big kids were invited to greet the President as he arrived on Marine One, the Presidential helicopter. The President shook hands with all of us and, along with the First Lady, posed for photos.
We all left the White House very happy, and in my case at least, a little sunburned.
To learn more about Let’s Move in Indian Country and what you can do to promote healthy lifestyles for your family and community, visit http://www.letsmove.gov/indiancountry.
To see video of the First Lady’s “Three Sisters” event and Sam Bradford’s public service announcement, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i83HjUNpjVc&feature=youtu.be and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvw4FGqMe0o .