A Montana State University student leader who has worked to improve the food systems on campus and within the Blackfeet Reservation has been named a 2020 Newman Civic Fellow, a national honor given to campus leaders who demonstrate a commitment to finding solutions for challenges facing local, national and international communities.
Danielle Antelope, a senior from Browning majoring in sustainable food and bio-energy systems in the College of Education, Health and Human Development, won the award for her work promoting food sustainability that draws on traditional food systems to respond to contemporary needs. Lisa Perry, the director of MSU American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success Services who nominated Antelope for the award, said Antelope is a natural leader and mentor for her peers both at MSU as well as for the Blackfeet community.
“She is continually seeking ways to improve systems to help people in her community. Her influence will impact generations, and I am excited to support her efforts,” Perry said.
An ASMSU senator who represented her college this academic year, Antelope is also active in the MSU American Indian Council. She founded the Brain Fuel Initiative to find funding to stock the heavily used American Indian Student Center with snacks and food that are both healthy and culturally appropriate. For instance, she stocks jerky and fruit in place of chips. Antelope said that such changes are actually a re-turn to the traditional dietary patterns that sustained Native people prior to colonization.
Antelope said the Newman Fellowship validates her lifelong interest in leadership as well as her personal journey that began in high school. Antelope said she has been a leader among her peers from the time she was in elementary school. Her work was impacted by a period of becoming overweight in high school that led to depression. At about that time her boyfriend, now her partner, lost about 100 pounds “and got healthy. He inspired me,” to lose weight and begin a healthy lifestyle, she said.
When she graduated from Browning High School in 2014, Antelope first enrolled at Blackfeet Community College. The tribal college is free for the first semester for students who graduate from Browning High School, so she was able to take entry level classes in a supportive environment and at no cost. She said people in her BCC classes ranged from grandmothers to high school students wanting to pick up credit. And she liked that her classmates were all Native people from her community.
“(Blackfeet Community College) made college seem like home and allowed me to build a foundation before coming to MSU,” Antelope said. “The people there rooted for me and supported me.”
She was elected student treasurer at the college, and she also first became involved in tribal food security issues and her efforts to change food systems. She began by helping make soup for BCC students every Thursday. She also worked in the BCC’s greenhouses, helping raise and sell plants for local gardens. It occurred to her then that even though her reservation is located on rich agricultural land, many people in her reservation believe their traditional foods are the processed foods that have been a staple in Native American communities for a couple of generations.
“The survival recipes that are now passed down to us by our mothers and grand-mothers are foods that include flour, beef, oil and sugar. Those aren’t the real food of our people – they are commodity foods,” Antelope said. “Our food insecurity rate is 4.5 times the national rate
Antelope said food access on her reservation is complicated by the fact that most of the Blackfeet Nation is served by just two grocery stores, and food costs more there than it does in other places. Therefore, many people in her community must rely on commodity food, she said.
Blackfeet food security and a solution that includes a diet based on locally produced sustainable foods interested her so much that she joined FAST Blackfeet, or Food Accessibility and Sustainability Team, a local nonprofit of which she is currently the co-chair. Among other projects, FAST Blackfeet runs a food pantry and helps educate and supply local foods in local diets.
“We are trying to make an impact on (the food in) isolated places,” she said. “We try to educate our people about the change in their food systems.”
Knowing that she planned to attend MSU after BCC, at about the same time as she began her FAST work Antelope also became a part of PATHS, or Pathways to Agriculture and Native Foods, Tribal Health and Sovereignty. PATHS is an MSU-based program that offers students 14-month internships. Antelope said PATHS also helped her transition to MSU by bringing her to the Bozeman campus in the summer before she enrolled. She was able to find a preschool for her 4-year-old son, and her family was able to become accustomed to life in Bozeman before school started, reducing the rough transition that many Native students experience.
Heidi Worley, MSU’s community engagement program manager who works with Montana Campus Compact, the group who coordinate the awards in Montana, said that through education and engaged dialogue facilitation, Antelope promotes understanding of indigenous identity through food and cultural well-being.
“The skills and knowledge Danielle have developed through her work with food sustainability are an asset to the MSU campus,” Worley said. “Her hope is to help tribes revitalize and preserve knowledge about her traditional food system while promoting healthy choices and overall nutrition.”
Through the fellowship, Campus Compact will provide Antelope and other Newman Fellows with training and resources that nurture their assets and passions and help them develop strategies for social change. The yearlong program, named for Campus Compact founder Frank Newman, includes virtual learning opportunities and networking as part of a national network of engaged student leaders.