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AIS capstone: Battling type II diabetes in Indigenous communities

| Denise Olson

As many experienced parents can attest, convincing kids to eat healthier food choices can be a challenge. One thing that seems to help is to involve kids in the preparation of the food. Well, one Blugold student took that concept a bit further in his capstone project for American Indian Studies. If helping prep the food gets kids interested in healthy eating, how about growing the food themselves? Won't that have additional impact?

Alec Thicke, American Indian Studies major from Rochester, was alarmed to learn about the rising rates of Type II diabetes among Indigenous communities, children in particular, and chose to create a capstone project aimed at reversing this trend. With a focus on after school programs, Thicke worked in partnership with the Eau Claire school district, and Shannon Mason Young. Young is the local coordinator of the American Indian Education program, address the specific academic and programmatic needs of American Indian students in this district.

"Alex’s lesson also tied into the work we are doing in the Title VII program about gardening and healthy foods with the students in the Title VII program.  We were able to plant a garden last year and had discussions around his lesson.  We will be planting the three sisters in our garden this year.  We will be tying in cultural connections this year to our planting," Mason Young said.

Thicke created a pilot program for 3rd and 5th graders, hosted after school at an elementary school. The program was based on the story of the "Three Sisters Garden" from Iroquois culture. The ancient farming practice utilizes the balance in soil and nutrients created when corn, squash and beans are planted in a pattern. By the time European settlers arrived in the early 1600s, the Iroquois had been growing the “three sisters” for over three centuries. The vegetable trio sustained the Indigenous both physically and spiritually. In legend, the plants were a gift from the gods, always to be grown together, eaten together, and celebrated together.

Each of the sisters contributes something to the planting. Together, the sisters provide a balanced diet from a single planting. 

"I chose this topic because because it is a simple story, able to be easily understood by a range of age groups. In addition, the story is widely known in most Indigenous cultures of the U.S., giving cultural meaning to why these three crops are healthy, why they are grown together, and why it is important to eat healthy foods," Thicke explained.

In sessions that took place over the course of several weeks, Thicke's program for students began with a film, showing children the legend of the Three Sisters. They then sampled each of the vegetables and ate soup made from all three, which was enjoyed in varying degrees.

"Some students did not really like the squash, while some others were turned off by the beans, but they all learned how to make it and how each ingredient was healthy for them," Thicke said.

After the sessions in which the actual farming practice was described, along with the ways in which these three crops work together to help each other grow and survive, the students agreed that they wanted to plant these items in their own school garden. The project coordinator at the school created a plan for the students to plant their Three Sisters Garden during the summer and harvest the vegetables the following fall. Another after school program planner arranged to cook another meal from their harvest.

"Overall I think the program was very effective and actually went pretty well," Thicke says. "In my opinion, after-school programs like this one are a good start to help stop the rise of type II diabetes.  If students learn at an early age the importance of eating healthier and how it connects to culture, hopefully they will continue to keep their healthy habits as they grow."

Thicke points to the ongoing support and assistance he received from the American Indian Studies Program as the reason he was able to complete this successful capstone project. Special thanks go to Heather Ann Moody, and the connection she helped to forge with Shannon Mason Young in the Eau Claire Area School District.

"Partnerships like this one are why programs like American Indian Studies aren’t just important for their own students and campus, but their communities as well — student can spread their knowledge and use their skills to better the community."

Photo caption: Alec Thicke in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, part of the immersion trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in the summer of 2015.