Local participation in a massive study on the health of First Nations youth could have a lasting benefit for Kanehsata’kehró:non, a fact celebrated by families and researchers on Saturday at Rotiwennakéhte elementary school.
“It felt really good. A lot of people did show up,” said Tess Lalonde, who is Dakota Sioux and a long-time resident of Kanesatake. She served as a community researcher for the project.
In all, 31 Kanesatake households took part in the Food, Environment, Health, and Nutrition of First Nations Children and Youth (FEHNCY) study, which aims to follow families and analyze a variety of determinants relating to health, including quality of housing and the prevalence of traditional foods.
“It’s pretty complex as a project. We touch on so much,” said Lalonde.
While the Kanesatake portion has ended, the overall study has a 10-year mandate.
“We’re the pilot community for the FEHNCY project,” said Lalonde. “It took three years to accomplish because of COVID, because of all this stuff.”
The study may have had some hiccups, but it produced useful results that have been shared with the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK), according to Lalonde.
“Diabetes used to be an elders’ sickness, and it went into young adults, and now it’s in our children,” she said in explaining the importance of the study.
“We’re trying to bring traditional ways back, but still, there’s no more animals. Nobody fishes in the lake,” she added.
The study found that families of four in Kanesatake have to shell out $310 a week just to put healthy food on the table.
Karonhienhawe Nicholas said her family had a good experience participating in the study, which included games and prizes. “Overall it was fun, and I think I got them in just in time. They’re losing interest in participating in anything – teens,” she laughed.
Her children did physicals and provided health data in addition to participating in an online session at which they shared how they hunt for their meat and grow vegetables and some fruits.
“My team and I have had a chance to review the findings and discuss them with the researchers,” said Teiawenhniseráhte Tomlinson, executive director of the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC). “This project is a great example of how community-driven initiatives can be seen through from beginning to end and become useful to us, rather than just be studied for someone else’s benefit. It was a very positive and fruitful experience overall.”
Tomlinson has been a long-time supporter of the project. He continued to serve on the advisory circle as an MCK chief and now seeks to make use of the data in fulfilling his mandate leading KHC, noting the project had not previously been met with collaboration there.
“It was important for me to change that for a few reasons,” he said, noting the importance of social services functioning together and the significance of taking into account nutrition, traditional food practices, and the environment.
“Research in these areas would bring important data to use for health planning, something that has been greatly lacking in the past,” he said.
FEHNCY also tapped the community’s creativity in the creation of a bundle inspired by one originating in Kahnawake that was used to raise awareness about diabetes.
Caira Nicholas made the first official patch for the FEHNCY bundle based on a drawing by Kanesatake student Otsisto Nelson. More patches will be added as it travels through different communities that are taking part.
“It felt great to participate,” said Nicholas, who was given creative freedom.
“(Lalonde) said I could paint, bead, burn, sew, do anything I want, so I did what I do best and brought everything I like to do all in one,” she said.
Her patch used leather burning to highlight the animals representing the clans Nelson drew, and raised beadwork for traditional foods. The background sought to acknowledge family elements.
“Family time looks different for everyone here, but we can all agree that the sunsets in Kanesatake bring families and the community together, so I felt it was the best backdrop to illustrate the feeling of family,” she said.
Caira also attended the event on Saturday. “From the information to the food, the music, and entertainment, everything was great,” she said.
“I’m really excited to see this once FEHNCY is wrapped up – how amazing to see the patch grow throughout the years. It’s going to be emotional to see it come back and have the chance to reflect on the findings.”
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.