Wild berries are integral dietary components for Alaska Native people and a rich source of polyphenolic metabolites that can ameliorate metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes. In this study, five species of wild Alaskan berries (Vaccinium ovalifolium , Vaccinium uliginosum , Rubus chamaemorus , Rubus spectabilis , and Empetrum nigrum) were screened for bioactivity through a community-participatory research method involving three geographically distinct tribal communities. Compositional analysis by HPLC and LC-MS(2) revealed substantial site-specific variation in anthocyanins (0.01-4.39 mg/g of FW) and proanthocyanidins (0.74-6.25 mg/g of FW) and identified A-type proanthocyanidin polymers. R. spectabilis increased expression levels of preadipocyte factor 1 (182%), and proanthocyanidin-enriched fractions from other species reduced lipid accumulation in 3T3-L1 adipocytes. Selected extracts reduced serum glucose levels in C57BL/6J mice by up to 45%. Local observations provided robust insights into effects of climatic fluctuations on berry abundance and quality, and preliminary site-specific compositional and bioactivity differences were noted, suggesting the need to monitor this Alaska Native resource as climate shifts affect the region.
Racial and ethnic minority communities, including American Indian and Alaska Natives, have been disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and contamination. This includes siting and location of point sources of pollution, legacies of contamination of drinking and recreational water, and mining, military and agricultural impacts. As a result, both quantity and quality of culturally important subsistence resources are diminished, contributing to poor nutrition and obesity, and overall reductions in quality of life and life expectancy. Climate change is adding to these impacts on Native American communities, variably causing drought, increased flooding and forced relocation affecting tribal water resources, traditional foods, forests and forest resources, and tribal health. This article will highlight several extramural research projects supported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) tribal environmental research grants as a mechanism to address the environmental health inequities and disparities faced by tribal communities. The tribal research portfolio has focused on addressing tribal environmental health risks through community based participatory research. Specifically, the STAR research program was developed under the premise that tribal populations may be at an increased risk for environmentally-induced diseases as a result of unique subsistence and traditional practices of the tribes and Alaska Native villages, community activities, occupations and customs, and/or environmental releases that significantly and disproportionately impact tribal lands. Through a series of case studies, this article will demonstrate how grantees-tribal community leaders and members and academic collaborators-have been addressing these complex environmental concerns by developing capacity, expertise and tools through community-engaged research.
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People draw upon multiple forms of environmental knowledge, from scientific to highly contextual local or traditional forms of knowledge, to interpret problems and gauge risks in complex socio-ecological systems. In collaboration with three remote Alaska Native communities, and using an interdisciplinary, participatory, and mixed methods research approach, we explored traditional ecological knowledge and scientific aspects of wild berries and the broader context of community health and environmental change. Combining site visits, key informant interviews, focus groups, survey questionnaires, portable field bioassays, and laboratory follow-up analyses, our research revealed the importance of local subsistence resources for community wellness. Multiple berry species were found to have powerful bioactive health properties for ameliorating metabolic syndrome as well as importance for community wellness. Communities differed in the degree to which they characterized berries as healthy foods and perceived environmental risks including climate change. Findings suggest the importance of incorporating locally available foods and socio-cultural traditions into community wellness programming. This article also discusses challenges and opportunities associated with transdisciplinary, participatory research with indigenous communities.