MISSING FROM THE MENU: Nutritious food hard to find on the Northern Cheyenne reservation

Story by Amy R. Sisk
Pho­tos by Sarah VanNortwick


Janelle Timber-Jones had a bowl of organic romaine on the counter and two bags of Lays sit­ting above the cabinet.

She chopped pineap­ple for a salad, which would accom­pany the tilapia fil­lets bak­ing in her oven. She’s made sure the night’s din­ner is low in calo­ries and carbohydrates.

The meal in Timber-Jones’ kitchen is a rar­ity on the North­ern Cheyenne Indian Reser­va­tion — a place where fatty, greasy foods often make up break­fast, lunch and din­ner. In fact, sug­ary, car­bon­ated bev­er­ages are so pop­u­lar here that res­i­dents have nick­named the reser­va­tion the “soda pop cap­i­tal of Montana.”

You can’t sus­tain a very strict diet for a very long time liv­ing in the place we do,” Timber-Jones said.

Floyd Bearing, the financial manager of the Cheyenne Depot, restocks one of the cases of chips at the largest convenience store on the reservation. "Chips, chips, chips," said Kay Medicine Bull when asked about the most popular food on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Inside the reservation’s lone gro­cery store, shop­pers find pre-packaged ice­berg let­tuce in a pro­duce sec­tion nes­tled between a wall of soda and a cooler of processed meat.

So, for her din­ner, Timber-Jones had to drive two hours west to Billings from her home near Ash­land for the dark green leafs in her salad bowl. The only dia­betic among the four peo­ple in her house, she watches what she eats and makes sure to exer­cise. But she occa­sion­ally allows her­self to indulge, in this case, the Lays.

Potato chips are my down­fall,” she said, though she resisted the urge that night.

Timber-Jones lives in a food desert with lim­ited choices for meals other than junk food. While fresh pro­duce is more read­ily avail­able today than a decade ago to peo­ple on the reser­va­tion, dense, high-calorie foods are still in high demand. This has helped cre­ate a com­mu­nity prone to health prob­lems includ­ing obe­sity and height­ened risks of devel­op­ing diabetes.

Chips and sug­ary drinks don’t last long on the shelves of the Cheyenne Depot 15 miles down the high­way from Timber-Jones’ home.

There’s already a line when the Lame Deer con­ve­nience store opens at 6 a.m. on the first day of any given month, the day food stamp and other pub­lic assis­tance money is dis­trib­uted to hun­dreds of residents.

On a Fri­day evening in April, the shelves of the walk-in stor­age cooler are filled with sev­eral dozen cases of soda, juice and energy drinks.

By Mon­day, all of this will be gone, and most of the stuff on the floor will be gone too,” gen­eral man­ager Car­rie Braine said.

Carrie Braine, general manager of the Cheyenne Depot, says she restocks the soda often. The store also keeps extra bottles in the back of the walk-in cooler.It both­ers her that peo­ple eat unhealthy food, and it upsets her more know­ing her store sup­plies it. But the Depot offers what peo­ple want to eat. She gets after her friends, some dia­betic, when she sees them stand­ing in line to buy fried goods from her deli. Yet her scold­ing does lit­tle to change their purchases.

As Braine walked past the deli, she rubbed her fin­ger across the glass window.

It’s pretty nasty in here,” she said to the worker clean­ing the case.

The grease came from the nearby vat of canola oil bub­bling around a few dozen chicken tenders.

Braine made her way deeper into the kitchen, stop­ping at the vat of oil to explain that she receives ship­ments of frozen chicken and other fin­ger foods from a Sysco dis­trib­u­tor in Billings.

Those are my favorite,” she remarked, point­ing to the thin strips of chicken bob­bing in the grease.

Before she took over the store two years ago, she could count on two hands the num­ber of times she entered the Depot each year. Now she eats her deli’s greasy food daily.

She has tried, with lit­tle suc­cess, to sell health­ier items like the low-calorie Spe­cial K Cracker Chips sit­ting next to the deli’s soda machines.

It came down here and it sat and it sat,” she said. “Nobody would touch it.”

Mac Cooper, an employee of the Cheyenne Depot, weighs chicken strips for a customer. The Depot is the only gas station and the larger of two convenience stores on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Fried foods are popular on the reservation.Instead, peo­ple go for the Lays or Dori­tos, and they go fast.

When Braine first took over the store in 2012, she put liter bot­tles of soda on sale for $1 and marked bags of chips down to $1.19. The sale was so suc­cess­ful that she made enough money to bring in an entire truck full of chips and soda.

When the low-calorie cracker chips wouldn’t sell, she tried the same tac­tic. But even by reduc­ing the price from $1.49 to $0.50, many of the bags sat in the same bas­ket months later. And though the $0.50 string cheese pack­ages are among the cheap­est items in the store, few make their way to the check­out counter.

Braine hopes to add other healthy items like sal­ads and deli sand­wiches. But her first pri­or­ity is to upgrade her check­out sys­tem and back office before she can focus on search­ing for a distributor.

Bring­ing in nutri­tious lunch foods offers an alter­na­tive to the deli’s grease, but it’s a gam­ble for busi­ness. Braine does not know whether those items would be any more pop­u­lar than the cracker chips or string cheese.

It’s a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion across the street at the Lame Deer Trad­ing Post, the reservation’s only gro­cery store. A few years ago, the busi­ness put up tags to iden­tify diabetic-friendly foods only to find that sugar-free cakes and syrup remained on the shelves.

When co-owner Donna Hurff brought in organic pro­duce, she real­ized her clients did not know what organic meant.

Those things just sat. They picked around it. They wouldn’t buy it,” she said. “I thought well maybe because they’re not edu­cated, they don’t know what organic is. Who’s show­ing them that organic is bet­ter for you because it doesn’t have all the pes­ti­cides and poi­sons in it?”

The Lame Deer Trading Post is the only grocery store on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. She tried again sev­eral years later, think­ing peo­ple might be more famil­iar with the term “organic.” Yet again, the organic fruits and veg­eta­bles, which have a shorter shelf life than con­ven­tional pro­duce, started to rot.

The trad­ing post recently fin­ished a ren­o­va­tion to add an addi­tional 5,000 square feet. The pro­duce sec­tion is now larger, and when cus­tomers walk in, they are greeted by a small dis­play of bananas, mel­ons and vegetables.

I see the green pep­pers right there, and I know I’d bet­ter grab one,” said Timber-Jones, the woman who tries to eat healthy in her Ash­land home.

She works in Lame Deer for the Office of Pub­lic Instruc­tion and drops by the trad­ing post sev­eral times a week to pick up veg­gies or soup for lunch. Before she pur­chases an item, she makes sure to read the label. If there’s sugar, salt or fat in the first three ingre­di­ents, the item won’t make it into her cart.

Mar­cia Roper spends every two weeks on the North­ern Cheyenne reserva tion try­ing to get more peo­ple to select food as care­fully as Timber-Jones.

The California-based nutri­tion­ist has split her time between her home state and the reservation’s Well­ness Cen­ter for the past six years. She devotes two weeks a month to meet­ing with res­i­dents and help­ing them brain­storm ways to get their dia­betes and weight under con­trol. Native Amer­i­cans are more than twice as likely to have dia­betes than white peo­ple, accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Services.

Janelle Timber-Jones lives in Ashland on the rural Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. She tries to stay fit and curb her diabetes by running as often as the weather permits.Inside her Lame Deer office, she works along­side dia­betes spe­cial­ists to pro­mote her Healthy Plate Pro­gram. She frowns at using med­ica­tion to treat dia­betes. Insulin and pills can cause more harm than good, she said. Instead, she encour­ages patients to care­fully mon­i­tor serv­ing size and bal­ance pro­teins, car­bo­hy­drates and non-starchy vegetables.

Tammy Round­stone, dia­betes coor­di­na­tor at the Well­ness Cen­ter, said 11 per­cent of the reservation’s 5,000 peo­ple have been diag­nosed with dia­betes. That’s not as alarm­ing as else­where in the coun­try like south­ern Ari­zona where the dia­betes rate for Pima Indi­ans hov­ers around 50 per­cent, accord­ing to the National Insti­tutes of Health. But the rate on the North­ern Cheyenne Indian Reser­va­tion does not take into account peo­ple who have not been diagnosed.

As Native Amer­i­cans adopted west­ern lifestyles, obe­sity and dia­betes became more fre­quent, accord­ing to research by Dorothy Gohdes, MD, pub­lished in “Dia­betes in Amer­ica,” a National Insti­tutes of Health col­lec­tion of med­ical reports on the dis­ease. Peo­ple on reser­va­tions began to con­sume more fat when they stopped gath­er­ing food through hunt­ing and farm­ing, and motor­ized vehi­cles and seden­tary jobs have not helped matters.

Through screen­ings and edu­ca­tion pro­grams, Round­stone and the other seven peo­ple who work at the North­ern Cheyenne Well­ness Cen­ter try to iden­tify indi­vid­u­als with dia­betes or pre­di­a­betes, which occurs when a person’s glu­cose level rises but not high enough to indi­cate diabetes.

Since the cen­ter opened in the early 2000s, she has seen the num­ber of peo­ple on the reser­va­tion who main­tain con­trol over the dis­ease dou­ble to 45 percent.

"I hate carrots,” says 6-year-old Max Littlebird as he reaches for a healthy snack at the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. The club's food is funded by a program that requires it to serve healthy foods to kids, such as carrots with ranch dressing.Roper, the nutri­tion­ist, spent the month of April pro­mot­ing her Healthy Plate Pro­gram in the Lame Deer Trad­ing Post. She placed tags next to items like nutrient-rich veg­eta­bles and other healthy foods. The Well­ness Cen­ter staffers are hope­ful that by offer­ing tours of the gro­cery store, peo­ple will make health­ier purchases.

Some res­i­dents on the reser­va­tion pre­fer to shop in Billings where food is cheaper than rural gro­cery stores. Round­stone believes the tags and tours will pay off for them there as well.

We can still show them what they can mix and match to make a healthy meal,” she said. “They can take what they learn to Wal­mart or wher­ever they shop.”

It is pos­si­ble for peo­ple to eat healthy regard­less of where they obtain food, Roper said. Offi­cials on the reser­va­tion esti­mate that three-quarters of peo­ple liv­ing there receive food assis­tance, either through food stamps or commodities.

The com­mod­ity pro­gram pro­vides food to low-income Native Amer­i­cans free of charge through the U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture.

In Lame Deer, 526 peo­ple stopped at the com­mod­ity dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter ware­house in March to pick up their allot­ted canned and boxed goods, said Linda Free­man, direc­tor of the Food Dis­tri­b­u­tion Pro­gram on the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion. They can select items like frozen beef and chicken from the freezer, or bulk beans, and cans of beef stew or peaches stacked in card­board boxes on top of pallets.

She said the USDA has grad­u­ally improved the nutri­tional value of its com­mod­ity food, much to the dis­may of some residents.

People who qualify for the commodity food program choose food for their families at the distribution center. Unfortunately, the food is sometimes not enough to last through the month.Peo­ple liv­ing off com­modi­ties can still main­tain a healthy diet if they work at it, Roper said. The great­est imped­i­ment she sees to access­ing healthy food on the reser­va­tion is a lack of jobs. Well over half the res­i­dents are unem­ployed. Hav­ing a reg­u­lar pay­check would allow peo­ple to pur­chase food and go a long way toward increas­ing indi­vid­u­als’ hap­pi­ness and self-worth, she said.

Stress, as well as caf­feine, present major bar­ri­ers to los­ing weight, and they are both preva­lent on the reser­va­tion, Roper said. In par­tic­u­lar, deaths of fam­ily and friends can wreak havoc on a person’s phys­i­cal health, espe­cially if that per­son has type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

That’s what Timber-Jones believes led to her diag­no­sis 20 years ago. She had started to lose energy and didn’t know why, so she vis­ited the reservation’s Indian Health Ser­vices clinic. The doc­tor informed her that her blood sugar had spiked to a num­ber eight times the rec­om­mended level, and she was imme­di­ately hos­pi­tal­ized. Sev­eral months later, she was diag­nosed with type 1 dia­betes. Her pan­creas, which pro­duces insulin nec­es­sary to allow sugar to enter cells, had stopped functioning.

Sev­eral of her fam­ily mem­bers also had dia­betes, but she’s cer­tain genet­ics are not the only fac­tor con­tribut­ing to her diag­no­sis. Within a short period of time, she had got­ten divorced, lost a sib­ling and grand­mother, and her step­mother suf­fered a mas­sive stroke. The stress was eat­ing away.

Holis­ti­cally, you have emo­tions, your spir­i­tual peace, your phys­i­cal peace — and all of those things play a part in your body,” she said. “It was a per­fect mar­riage to have that hap­pen to me.”

She ran three miles a day prior to her diag­no­sis and kept run­ning after­ward, com­pet­ing in sev­eral marathons. The medals she keeps in her bed­room show­case the high points of her fight to stay healthy, but she hasn’t always felt like gold.

Her house burned to the ground in the sum­mer 2012 Ash Creek fire, and sev­eral peo­ple close to her died around the same time. In the year that fol­lowed, she lost sight of main­tain­ing a healthy diet and work­out reg­i­men, gain­ing 25 pounds.

When you are depressed, you don’t really want to get up and chop veg­gies,” she said.

Tribal members on the Agriculture Department’s Food Distribution Program pick up their food allotment at the Food Distribution Center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In March, 526 people picked up commodity rations from the program, which serves low income Native Americans. She found her stride again in Feb­ru­ary, as well as a new nat­ural foods store in Billings with organic apples, pears and pis­ta­chios that sat on her kitchen table. Nearly every day, she pulls on her ten­nis shoes and puts in her ear­buds before set­ting out for a jog across the grassy flatlands.

With few options for enter­tain­ment, peo­ple on the reser­va­tion watch a lot of TV, she said. Time and time again, they get bom­barded with ads for highly processed food.

Peo­ple are will­ing to run out and try it,” she said. “We know sugar is addict­ing. Sugar is in almost every­thing. So if they try some­thing new and it has sugar in it and they are already addicted, guess what?”

That often hap­pens when peo­ple drink soda, some­thing Lame Deer res­i­dent Bar­bara Braided Hair was reminded of this spring when a neigh­bor­hood boy vis­ited her home. When she asked the boy if he would like some water, he eagerly said yes. All his mother had been giv­ing him was Dr. Pepper.

This hor­ri­fied Braided Hair, who grew up with her grandmother’s cook­ing along the Tongue River in Bir­ney. Her grand­mother pre­pared dishes from processed com­mod­ity cheese and canned fruits and meat, but Braided Hair likes to remem­ber the items she helped gather: fresh caviar and trout from the river.

We can only eat so much because we need to let them grow,” her grand­mother would tell her as she pre­pared the fish. “That way they will be plen­ti­ful next season.”

Before “organic” became a buzz­word, Braided Hair helped her grand­mother har­vest berries and veg­eta­bles, both pes­ti­cide free, from the gar­den next to the house. Food, her grand­mother said, holds spir­i­tual mean­ing for the North­ern Cheyenne.

When we pre­pared food, my grand­mother would say, ‘You can’t have bad feel­ings. If you had a bad day, things didn’t go well, let that go and pray about it. As you pre­pare food, the feel­ing goes into the food,’” she said.

Barbara Braided Hair, 50, prepares a healthy lunch of food she purchased at the Lame Deer Trading Post, the only grocery store on the reservation. Braided Hair treated her family to lunch while at her work at the First Interstate Bank in Lame Deer.Braided Hair’s grand­mother encour­aged her to teach her chil­dren to pray, so she did.

On a recent after­noon, Braided Hair sat in the break room of the First Inter­state Bank, located across the street from the Lame Deer Trad­ing Post. She had just come from the gro­cery store and set up a lunch of straw­ber­ries, black­ber­ries, rasp­ber­ries, car­rots, broc­coli and ice­berg let­tuce salad.

The bank man­ager bowed her head and asked — in the native Tse­he­sen­est­ses­totse tongue — for the spir­its to come, and she thanked them for the bless­ings of food and nourishment.

There was no soda at the table. She has sworn it off.

Drink­ing soda in a social set­ting is akin to order­ing beer at a bar, she said. It’s so embed­ded in the North­ern Cheyenne cul­ture that guests show up with a case of Pepsi or Moun­tain Dew at every baby shower and birth­day party.

Her daugh­ter, Jes­sica, recalled her high school days a decade ago when stu­dents thought noth­ing of down­ing “Big Slam” liter-sized bot­tles of soda. When she first met her boyfriend and his fam­ily, she noticed they also drank far too much of the sug­ary concoction.

I said, ‘We need water,’ so now we’re both try­ing to change that,” she said. “If we didn’t do that, they would just drink pop every sin­gle day.”

Bar­bara Braided Hair has talked to Timber-Jones about start­ing a co-op to pro­vide items like fresh veg­gies, soups, kom­bucha — a fer­mented black tea drink — and other exotic foods for peo­ple to try. But that’s a pipe dream for now.

I would love to see that, and I have been pray­ing for it,” she said. “If you pray for some­thing good for the peo­ple, you have to be patient because it might not come tomor­row or next year or in 10 years, but it will be here.”

Thanks to a new green­house, the Boys & Girls Club in Lame Deer is try­ing to grow its own food to feed the com­mu­nity. A hun­dred chil­dren hang out there every day after school, doing crafts, play­ing games and eat­ing snacks like car­rots with ranch dip and milk. Because so many of the chil­dren come from low-income fam­i­lies, the club gets reim­bursed for the money it spends on snacks through the USDA, pro­vided those snacks are healthy.

“When we pre­pared food, my grand­mother would say, ‘You can’t have bad feel­ings. If you had a bad day, things didn’t go well, let that go and pray about it. As you pre­pare food, the feel­ing goes into the food,’”

In April, the kids took their milk car­tons into the crafts room, where they reused them as tem­po­rary pots to plant veg­eta­bles. The plants will be moved to the green­house to con­tinue grow­ing through­out the summer.

We would like to have enough pro­duce to pro­vide a meal,” said Lanita Hau­gen, unit direc­tor for the Boys & Girls Clubs in Lame Deer and Ash­land. “We would like the kids to invite their fam­i­lies and have a din­ner, and intro­duce them to what the Boys & Girls Club has done.”

Last year, the club ran a dia­betes edu­ca­tion pro­gram to encour­age chil­dren to exer­cise and eat healthy, and the lessons stuck. The kids were so excited about adopt­ing new eat­ing habits that some started ask­ing their par­ents to buy bet­ter food.

Hav­ing par­ents share that with us shows that they were pay­ing atten­tion,” Hau­gen said.

Whether kids teach their par­ents or adults pass the mes­sage on to their chil­dren, no one expects a reservation-wide shift to a healthy diet overnight.