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Health & Spirit

Minnesota's Native American health advocates use old games as new cures for obesity

Allie Shah, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Health & Fitness

MINNEAPOLIS -- The players stood on the field in a circle, passing burning sage to one another.

One by one, they waved their lacrosse sticks over the thick, sweet-smelling smoke.

Then they faced off, ready to start play on a recent Sunday at Corcoran Park in Minneapolis. Sasha Houston Brown tossed up the ball. The other players jumped for it -- raising their sticks toward the sky and shouting excitedly "to let Creator know we're playing," Houston Brown said.

It's a scene that plays out each week in the park among the dozen or so Native Americans who regularly show up to play old-style lacrosse, or "Creator's game," as they call it.

For them, it is more than a game. It's medicine.

The prescription for better health for Native Americans lies in returning to their roots, Houston Brown and Lisa Skjefte believe. The Minneapolis women are among a new generation of Native health advocates working to improve community health by reviving the active lifestyle of their ancestors.

"We had all of this down," Skjefte said. "We know how to survive."

Staggering rates of obesity and diabetes among Native Americans have led to shortened life spans. Native adults are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as is the general population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diets worsened when Native Americans were forced to live on reservations and government commodities replaced the nutrient-rich, natural foods they were used to eating. Physical fitness waned as lacrosse was lost to the Indigenous people who invented it.

"It was something that was very deliberately taken from us," Houston Brown said.

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