By JUSTIN HUENEMANN, DINÉ/GERMAN
What does National Native American Heritage Month mean to you? Does it hold any collective national significance for Indian Country? Outside a proclamation here and there, I am not sure it invokes a full sense of unity, strength and hope. At the NB3 Foundation, we want to change that. We propose that this national month could also be a month to celebrate and bring awareness to Native American youth health and wellbeing. What better way to honor our collective strengths, nationhood, cultural lifeways and contributions then to honor, celebrate and lift-up our living future – our children.
I offer you these reasons. There are few greater responsibilities before us than helping protect and ensure, to the best of our abilities, the wellbeing of our children. Their vulnerability and innocence requires a level of intensity, commitment and focus to their protection and advancement. This responsibility is not a political or jurisdictional responsibility. In fact, it is one that crosses all sectors, aisles and communities, and requires the thoughtfulness by all who were once children.
Unfortunately, Native American children continue to face huge health challenges. In fact, at current rates, Native American children will live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation. There is little secret that decreased rates of physical activity, limited access to healthy foods and safe places to play and increases in consumption of sugary beverages and unhealthy foods are contributing significantly to unhealthy weight and risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
These preventable diseases cost the Unites States and our tribes hundreds of millions of dollars annually- not to mention it exacerbates poor quality of life. The good news is so many of our health challenges are preventable. We have the power to change this for ourselves. Of course it will require that families, communities and tribes make youth and family health and prevention a high priority and that budget considerations reflect this priority. To help, I offer the following list as examples of policy and investment possibilities that are completely in our reach. And, in fact, these have been proven to help improve the health outcomes of children:
• Improve the nutritional quality of snacks, lunches and drinks in schools and early childhood settings.
• Reduce consumption of sugary sweetened drinks.
• Protect children from unhealthy food marketing.
• Increase access to and consumption of affordable, healthy foods.
• Increase access to safe places for physical activity.
• Increase children’s physical activity levels (e.g. in schools, after school, youth programs, at home).
Study after study reveals that prenatal, early childhood and youth development investments in health, nutrition and physical activity are worth every penny. In fact, the financial return to tribes, states, businesses and local communities alone makes such investments a smart choice.
Lets make National Native American Heritage Month or November a national month of Native youth health and wellbeing. Lets raise our collective bar and place the needs, concerns and desires of our children on the top of our priorities. Together, we will let our children know we love them and care for their future.
Justin Huenemann, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is the President and CEO of the Notah Begay III Foundation, a leading national nonprofit dedicated to reducing Native American childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. He has dedicated his lifeís work to improving the quality of life of Native peoples.