Michigan's Indigenous children receive culturally sensitive nutrition education through new program

The 13 Moons Curriculum enriches the lives of children up to age 5 with an academic foundation focused on culturally relevant, healthy eating.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Amanda Rinna and her husband don't own a TV. Instead, after the work day is done, they head to public lands near their home with their toddler daughter to tap maple trees for syrup or forage wild foods and medicinal plants. This connection to the natural world is more than a hobby or lifestyle choice. As members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Rinna and her family are simply practicing the ways of their tribal culture, which emphasize a rich food heritage based on nutrient-dense local foods.

Rinna also practices this food culture in her work as tribal home visiting program coordinator for the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan (ITCM), a consortium of all 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan. And with the help of a new early childhood curriculum supplement, The 13 Moons Curriculum, the home visitors she manages are now enriching the lives of children up to age 5 with an academic foundation focused on culturally relevant, healthy eating.
A sample page from the 13 Moons curriculum.
"We use the Family Spirit Curriculum, a home visiting curriculum that's the only evidence-based curriculum model for home visiting that is created for Native families by Native people," Rinna says. "It gives our visitors a curriculum to deliver to families that includes lessons that are not only academic, but include cultural considerations as well."

The 13 Moons Curriculum places additional emphasis on eating healthier by incorporating traditional tribal foods in the family diet. Some curriculum modules have already been rolled out to families, while additional modules are still being developed for use in Head Start programs. The curriculum is the work of Rinna and other early childhood professionals who are part of ITCM and Michigan State University’s (MSU) Wiba Anung partnership.

"Wiba Anung’s activities have varied throughout the partnership, but the goal has always been to support the well-being of Michigan Indigenous children and families through early childhood education and health," says Jessica Saucedo, an MSU graduate student, community psychologist, and descendant of the Yaqui people from Sonora, Mexico. "I think those at MSU have helped to create tangible products for families to use that highlight community wisdom and language."

The home visitors Rinna works with share that families enjoy activities from the curriculum, particularly ones that share traditional knowledge they can incorporate into their lives.

"Not every family is aware of these things. Many families are really hungry to relearn and revitalize this stuff," Rinna says. "They understand about frybread or wild rice, but not what a traditional diet really entails, what it is to eat nutrient-dense meals all the time — and how accessible they could potentially be."

Lisa Martin is a collaborator on the curriculum, Johns Hopkins University senior research associate, and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She notes positive feedback on the curriculum from a focus group with home visitors.

"[They] mentioned that the families really took to the curriculum and the lessons," Martin says. "The kids were really excited. Whenever they would see the home visitor approaching their house, they would grab their materials. They’re excited about learning the things that we had created and really appreciated that they were culturally grounded. They saw themselves reflected in the materials."

The importance of the Indigenous diet

America’s tribal people disproportionately experience nutrition-related chronic diseases, especially diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The late Dennis Banks, a renowned Native American activist who co-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), spent his later years campaigning for the inclusion of Indigenous foods in tribal diets. In 2011, Banks led AIM’s over-5,000-mile The Longest Walk to raise awareness about diabetes prevention among native peoples.

ITCM's website states that "nutritional knowledge is more important than ever to support healthy behavior change," and that culturally appropriate materials are needed "to prevent disease and to achieve improved health." The enhanced curriculum that Rinna and her colleagues have developed delivers this message in an easy-to-digest format for families with young children. Michelle Leask, ITCM project manager and member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewas, notes that the 13 Moons Curriculum acts as a supplement to the Gikinawaabi curriculum, which includes school-readiness, culture, and language activities supporting family and child development.
A sample page from the 13 Moons curriculum.
"Gikinawaabi has a lot of early literacy, language, and math skills integrated into it. But one of the sections that seems to be a priority for many of the communities and tribes is nutrition education," Leask says. "Food itself is a great gateway for revitalizing language and culture, as well as physical and altogether development for the child in the family."

For example, Lesson 15 of The 13 Moons Curriculum, "Midaaswi shi naanan," talks about "Healthy Eating in Daily Life." In the lesson, families and young children learn Anishinaabemowin words that relate to the moon, prepare to try out a healthy recipe related to the moon, and learn about moon-related activities that occur in their community.

The lesson also shares this "Medicine Wheel Wisdom:" "Food is medicine that fuels our mind, body, and spirit. Food comes from our land; eating food from our land reminds us who we are and where we come from. Knowing who we are and where we come from keeps our spirit strong."

Collaboration and relationships continue the work

Other partners in the ongoing project include Indigenous graphic artist Eva Oldman, MSU's Opioid Prevention and Education Network (OPEN), community members representing Michigan’s food sovereignty movement, Indigenous growers, farmers markets, and tribal families. Families provided input through a survey and a PhotoVoice project. PhotoVoice is a non-profit that helps organizations use photography to document feedback from community members in order to promote positive social change.
A photo submitted by a PhotoVoice project participant.
"We asked parents on our PhotoVoice project about ways that they involved their children in healthy food, nutrition, and cooking — ways that they've shared cultural traditions with their young children. That really informed our lessons," says curriculum collaborator Beedoskah Stonefish, education resource specialist for OPEN-MSU and member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians

Now, the program collaborators are focusing their efforts on rolling additional curriculum modules out to tribal Head Start programs. This phase of the program is funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. In addition to past feedback from families, a focus group with Head Start staff serving tribal families has provided input for the new phase of the initiative. As part of the federal program that promotes school readiness among children up to age 5 from low-income families, ITCM's tribal Head Start programs provide comprehensive services to children and their families. Its Head Start services are tailored to children’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage — and emphasize parents' role as their children’s first and most important teachers.

Once the 13 Moons Curriculum home visitor modules were completed, they were compiled into a book that will be made available to the various ITCM tribal Head Start programs as well as families in the home visitor program.

"They were all individual components. We put them together and bound them," Rinna says. "It's a beautiful book that home visitors are super excited to provide to families."

As Michigan’s tribal families learn to look to their own heritage as a means to achieving health, their example inspires all Michiganders to purchase, prepare, and eat locally sourced foods that prevent and overcome disease states like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

"All of this work is building on relationships that have existed for a long time and projects that have existed for a long time," says curriculum collaborator Dr. Danielle Gartner, MSU assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. "It's all evolving."
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Photos courtesy of ITCM.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.