Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana Gives Lessons in Reading Labels, Cooking Healthier

    • November 22, 2011

At Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in rugged north-central Montana, which is home to approximately 3,500 members of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, limited access to recreational opportunities and affordable nutritious food has led to increasing rates of obesity—now 22 percent among reservation youth.

“I’ve always loved it up here in the mountains,” says India Blatt-Demontiney, a project coordinator with the Boys & Girls Club of the Bear’s Paw, one of the only recreational outlets for youth on the reservation where half the population is under 18. “It’s not like the city. When I was little, we were able to run all over and everyone watched out for each other’s kids.”

But today, the chronic economic distress endured by Chippewa Cree tribal members makes raising happy, healthy children more difficult than ever. Nearly half of Rocky Boy residents live below the poverty level, and per capita income totals less than $8,000 per year (less than a third of the national figure). During the long, harsh winters, unemployment reaches as high as 77 percent. In local schools, nine out of 10 students (K–12) qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, and at the local health clinic, diabetes accounts for the largest number of patient visits—more than 1,000 per year.

In 2007 Rocky Boy residents and tribal leaders began mobilizing to directly confront the obesity problem. A series of “Youth Issues” meetings were held, with collaborative participation across all sectors—businesses, schools and 13 different social service agencies, along with tribal judicial and other tribal agencies. Since then, the sense of urgency has been sustained, and notable changes have been implemented.

The Rocky Boy Health Board project AH-WAH-SI-SAHK-O-CHI, which in Cree means “For The Children,” is funded through Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE). CCHE is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) national program that aims to prevent childhood obesity by increasing access to healthy foods and safe places to play in communities of color.

As in many cultures, food has an important social function for the Chippewa Cree. “In our culture, everything involves a feast—birthdays, weddings, naming ceremonies. It’s all meat, potatoes and bread,” says Blatt-Demontiney. “With our high rate of unemployment, two or three families live together in one household. So it comes down to what’s the cheapest way to feed everyone.”

Unfortunately, convenience foods high in fat, sugar and salt are often the least expensive.

“Here we have a convenience store called Grandma’s Market,” says Blatt-Demontiney, “and our challenge is to get the kids away from the microwave.” Instead of defaulting to pre-packaged, processed foods, youth are being taught to read labels and learn what’s healthy to eat. “We created a healthy food logo and put these little signs all over the store, showing this is good for you, this is not. We also started healthy cooking classes.”

Fourteen-year-old Slayte grew up on the reservation and has taken some of those classes. “I like to cook for my family,” he says with confidence. Whole wheat spaghetti with salad is one family favorite, but Slayte has also been learning about healthy foods that are part of his traditional culture.

“We collect berries, and we also dry deer meat and make it into jerky,” he says, adding, “We’re going hunting this weekend.”

The Boys & Girls Club’s “Healthy Journey” weekend day camp teaches parents and children how to prepare traditional foods using healthier ingredients—for example, whole wheat instead of white flour to make Bannock, also known as Indian frybread. Instead of being fried in fat, the dough can be wrapped around a stick and cooked over a campfire. “You can serve it with anything,” Blatt-Demontiney explains, “and we encourage trying fresh berries instead of butter and jam.”

At the club, busiest on weekdays during after-school hours, children are served only healthy snacks—fresh fruits and vegetables, granola bars, string cheese. “Once in awhile we’ll have strawberry shortcake,” says Blatt-Demontiney, “but it’s made with lowfat angel food and fat-free whipped cream.”

A community garden, managed by the diabetic program at the local health clinic, has further expanded awareness of and access to healthy food. “People come and learn how to do it, how to plant and harvest and prepare the produce,” says Blatt-Demontiney. “They don’t have to pay for anything they get from the garden.”

In addition, after a lengthy process of community organizing, a new wellness center has opened next door to the health clinic. For the first time, residents have access to a swimming pool, basketball court, walking track and gym equipment. A special incentives program rewards eighth-graders for their workouts.

Slayte visits the wellness center nearly every day. “I lift weights, and I use the swimming pool,” he says. “I switch it up, so I don’t get bored.”

What makes all these programs successful is ongoing collaboration among highly determined partners. “We all work together,” says Blatt-Demontiney. “We all send the same messages.”