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Alumni Engagement

Briana Curtis
Santa Rita Hall 108

Phone: 973-290-4208
bcurtis@steu.edu

Kibbe McGaa Brown

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Reviving Heritage Food Ways

Kibbe McGaa Brown points to a chart in a book.

A ring of red and a loaf of white ushered in an era of unprecedented illness and disease among members of the Lakota tribe. Representative of the refined carbohydrates and processed meat found in a bologna sandwich, this pithy phrase illustrates the movement from traditional food ways to more modern manners of consumption.

“The bologna sandwich was an alternative to standing at the stove, cooking all day,” explains Kibbe McGaa Brown, ‘93 a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service and a graduate of SEU’s dietetic internship program. “Eating this way became a matter of status because some people had the ability to afford convenience.”

However, with ease of preparation came an entirely new problem: high blood sugar. In the early 1990s, before the diabetes epidemic was well understood, Kibbe began working as a dietician for Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She had witnessed the devastating impacts of diabetes on her aunts and uncles and was determined to help other Native people with the condition. Not knowing where to start fighting this disease, Kibbe turned to her elders.

“While at Pine Ridge, I had access to the Grey Eagle Society, [a group of Lakota elders], who taught me about traditional food ways,” says Kibbe. “I learned that there was a radical shift in food intake for Native people in a relatively short amount of time and the elders taught me to consider how our ancestors ate instead.”

Using both her elders’ wisdom and formal education, Kibbe began to reimagine how nutrition education was taught to Native people. Instead of relying on the food pyramid, which was the only model at the time, Kibbe looked for a symbol more reflective of heritage food ways.

The Medicine Wheel, a circle divided into 4 quadrants.“The circle, with four directions, is a cultural symbol,” describes Kibbe. “Known as the medicine wheel, the west is water, the north is the buffalo, the east is for harvesting and gathering berries and plants while the south is for cultigens such as corn, beans, and potatoes.”

By developing materials that mirrored that traditional food system in contemporary ways, Kibbe was able to steer people away from refined carbohydrates and toward bone broth, plants, and other ancient food ways. As a national nutrition consultant for Indian Health Services (IHS) in the Division of Diabetes Treatment and Prevention, Kibbe is able to measure the impact of nutritional education, traditional diets, and other methods of intervention.

As reported by the IHS, Native Americans have the highest rates of Type II diabetes in the United States. However, as explained in the IHS’ Special Diabetes Program For Indians report to congress, diabetes-related deaths, hospitalizations for uncontrolled diabetes, and diabetic eye disease had all decreased. Additionally, for the first time, diabetes prevalence in American Indians and Alaska Native People decreased (and did so consistently) for four years; a feat never accomplished by the general U.S. population nor any other U.S. racial or ethnic group.

Kibbe was able to play a part in this reduction due to the education she received at Saint Elizabeth University.

“Studying at SEU equipped me to succeed in my career in Indian Health by preparing me to serve in clinical, community, and foodservice settings,” says Kibbe.