If Kibbe Conti is one thing, she’s a fighter.
The Nutrition graduate didn’t always have the easiest paths both in her personal and professional journeys, but along the way she learned to overcome and grow to get where she is today.
Born in Vermillion, South Dakota, Kibbe and her family moved to St. Paul early in her life. The daughter of a Lakota father and non-native mother, she knew of her Native identity, but was never able to completely embrace and connect with that heritage.
“I didn’t have a grandmother to help teach me, and had minimal exposure to Lakota culture,” said Kibbe. “I would get little glimpses of the culture from my father, Ed McGaa, but not enough to claim that identity.”
It would be years until Kibbe made strides to move her closer not only to her heritage, but her Native community. And during that chapter of her life, she encountered another obstacle she would overcome: college.
After graduating from high school, Kibbe attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years before returning to Minnesota to attend the U.
Arriving on campus, she started her journey to becoming a dietitian. Placed into the Pre-professional Practice Program, a program that no longer exists, she was expected to complete clinical hours through an internship while also taking a full credit load. Demanding even under normal circumstances, Kibbe quickly encountered her next personal challenge: trying to learn with a disability. Later identifying her challenge as dyslexia, at the time it left Kibbe at a loss.
“I always knew the way I learned was different, but I didn’t know why,” she explained. “I had always kept a balanced credit load so I could focus, but the expectations of the program were too much for me at the time.”
Working hard to stay in the program, she saw her GPA drop each quarter until she was asked to leave the program.
“I was devastated,” Kibbe remarked.
She again found herself in a tough place, and again she was able to overcome. Her senior year she returned to a normal, manageable credit load and saw her GPA and confidence rise. She graduated that year with a degree in Nutrition and moved on to the next chapter in her life.
Seeking a job where she could apply her Nutrition degree, Kibbe landed in New York City, working for Kraft Food Service. However, her dream of becoming a dietitian never faded. Showing her perseverance, she moved forward with the application process, and even reached out to a faculty member at the U, who had previously not believed she would ever become a dietitian.
“I gave her a call, and she was surprised but very helpful, encouraging me and even providing a letter of recommendation,” Kibbe said.
She was eventually accepted to a year-long dietetic internship at the College of Saint Elizabeth. Spreading the clinical hours over a full year helped her thrive and successfully complete the program.
“In hindsight, this was the best way to go,” she said. “I was devastated things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to at the U, but in the end it was truly a blessing.”
While pursuing her dietetic internship, a bit of fate entered the fold for Kibbe. Looking for a summer internship, she began searching for a position through the U.S. Public Health Service, a uniformed service led by the U.S. Surgeon General. Her results turned up a location that even surprised her: a dietitian position on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota - her Native tribe.
She ended up spending the summer in Pine Ridge, at the very same hospital where her father was born. The internship also opened the doors to an amazing personal growth opportunity, connecting with relatives she hadn’t known in the past and finally getting the opportunity to be immersed in her Lakota heritage.
At the end of the summer and her internship, fate intervened again. The hospital she worked at during the summer was constructing a brand new facility, and everyone there was doing their best to convince her to take a job and stay in South Dakota.
And that is exactly what she did.
Kibbe completed her dietetic internship, passed the Dietetics Exams and joined the staff as a lieutenant junior grade in the US Public Health Service.
“I worked at the hospital for five years and was able to apply everything I learned in my internship,” she noted. “From food service to clinical and all in a reservation setting, it was a great first position for me to take.”
It was during this time that she discovered the next obstacle for her to tackle: Native health and nutrition.
Working on the ‘rez’ during the 1990s, she was faced with a diabetic epidemic affecting the community. Analyzing the food pyramid of the day, she quickly realized that the nutritional suggestions were not a valuable resource for the Native population.
She began her quest to best help the Native population, researching the original food ways and how it evolved over the decades. Knowing a tribe and how its eating habits have evolved is a ‘key piece to understanding and then helping a group,’ she pointed out.
“Lakota people come from a tradition of great health,” Kibbe noted. “It was evident that what they used to eat provided them with great health and strength so I needed to learn more about how to apply that wisdom to modern times.”
Her work began during her time at Pine Ridge but didn’t really take off until she left for a job with Urban Indian Health in Denver, Colorado. There she began working with a tribal elder, diving into an examination of the Native medicine wheel and how it related to food.
She explained that each of the four quadrants of the wheel related to a different aspect of life: West is related to water, North to buffalo and other sources of protein, East to gathering foods like berries and greens and South to cultivated crops like corn. Once those relationships fell into place, Kibbe finally felt like she had the strong base to build upon when trying to teach the original food ways.
The medicine wheel served as the starting point, allowing her to share her research at several conferences. And once the word got out, she was able to help other tribes on their path to health.
The discovery also helped her understand how eating habits evolved, leading to many of the health issues the Native groups were facing. Using her knowledge as a dietitian, she used the resources provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and found a way to weave it with the original food ways.
“I remind them that their grandmothers knew that plants were important for health, and now science has proven how important those antioxidants found in the plants are,” she said. “That tie-in to the Lakota tradition really helps them connect the concepts.”
Eventually Kibbe and her family left Denver and returned to South Dakota, where she returned to the same hospital where her career started.
In addition to working in a clinical setting, Kibbe continues her outreach and research. She has worked with several tribes on developing and telling their own food stories and also speaks at conferences around the nation on the topic of Native health.
Her quest for understanding Native health has blossomed, and she is amazed with how much the movement has grown.
“When I started working with food sovereignty in the 90’s, not a lot of people knew what I was talking about but now it’s a big buzzword,” she said. “Food sovereignty is about tribes being empowered. Taking little pieces of that original food system and bringing it back: reclaiming buffalo herds, reclaiming land to cultivate crops, harvesting maple syrup and rice. It’s been a big movement and I am blessed to be a part of it.”
Not bad for a girl who grew up distanced from that heritage, and overcame several obstacles to get where she is today.
“I feel blessed to not only be embracing my culture as a returning Lakota, but also helping my people,” Kibbe said. “It feels great to be back and helping change the future of my people for the best.”