Dealing With Diabetes
Arlie Neskahi: Native people have had a long tradition of remarkably good health. Our native ancestors were lean and robust, with well-developed bodies, dense bones, sound teeth, and they were free from the degenerative diseases found in Europe at that time. In the century that followed Lewis and Clark Expedition, Native people would be introduced to alcohol and foods that compromised their health.
In today’s Sacred Landscape, Judy Bluehorse Skelton talks about the diabetes epidemic in Indian country and what the Blackfeet nation is doing to restore healthy lives.
Judy Bluehorse Skelton:
During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, tribes were moved onto reservations a fraction of the size of their traditional hunting, fishing and gathering lands. The people were not allowed to leave the reservation to hunt, fish or gather. Rather than die of starvation and cold, native people relied on the food and materials supplied by the federal agents. Tribes accustomed to elk, deer and buffalo, were given sick cows to slaughter. The traditional hunting and gathering ceremonies were discouraged or forbidden and the quality of life for Indian people began to deteriorate.
The commodities provided by U.S. agents were not the traditional foods of Native people, but were the staples of a Euro-American diet. These commodities included white flour, white sugar, powdered milk, and lard. Women began cooking with these items to feed their hungry families. Food that was once prepared by baking or steaming, was fried in lard instead. Making do with what was on hand, women took the flour, added a little water, sometimes a little sugar, and placed the flattened dough into the frying pan… And Indian frybread was born. While it has become a traditional food at Powwows and other Native events, it’s important to remember, it’s ingredients and cooking method were introduced to the Blackfeet and other western tribes less than two hundred years ago by Euro- Americans.
Blood of the Land
Today there is an unwelcome traveler in Indian country known as type II diabetes, and it has been called the new smallpox. Diabetes attacks vision, the kidneys, the nervous and circulatory systems, and the heart, causing blindness, kidney failure and heart attacks. Diabetes risk increases with age and weight. However, in the past decade, statistics have shown a disheartening trend. While once most common in people over fifty or sixty, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of cases amongst people in their late twenties and thirties. It is the fourth leading cause of death by disease and kills more women each year than breast cancer.
Medical research has found that diets high in sugar and certain carbohydrates put people at higher risk for diabetes. Studies also show that Native people are at a much higher risk than the non-native population for type II diabetes, with rates running from 50% to as high as 70% among some tribes. This was not always the case. Diabetes was quite rare among native people prior to the 1940’s.
Traditional foods are medicine for our physical, mental and spiritual growth and well being. Today, Native organizations, in collaboration with individual tribes, are studying how traditional foods may have protected American Indians from diabetes and other diseases. Over the centuries, Native people have developed ways to gather, grow and preserve hundreds of foods, like beans, corn, squash, berries, wild greens, nuts and seeds. A diet of these regional, traditional foods is much higher in fiber, lower in fat, and contains natural sugars. Game such as elk, deer and buffalo, that graze on grasses, offer leaner meat than beef and pork. Salmon is not only a good source of protein, but contains the beneficial omega-3 oil that reduces inflammation and heart disease. A return to a diet rich in these foods has been shown to control and prevent diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Blood of the Land
Several creative programs designed to educate, prevent and care for native people threatened by diabetes, have sprung up in Indian communities across the U.S. The Blackfeet Diabetes Program in Browning, Montana includes tours of grocery stores for nutritional education. The stores become “laboratories” to teach people about food, added ingredients and healthy choices. The program also offers cooking classes and other services.
Blackfeet author, Marietta King, recently wrote a book entitled, “Native American: Food is Medicine: Alternative Choices and Cookbook for the Prevention and Control of Diabetes.” She’s created a Native American hunter-gatherer food pyramid, and shares gathering and food preparation practices, as well as recipes that incorporate traditional Native foods with modern day foods. Marietta King offers this prayer at the beginning of her book: May we live in joy, humbleness, compassion, wisdom and companionship with a dancing heart in the fullness of love that is driven by our strength and courage; for our children and our children’s children yet to be born, that we shall be free of disease and stand in good health in our heart, soul, mind and physical body. Osadadu.
For copies of Marietta King’s book, contact the publisher at jmcompanies.com, 1-800-972-3114. Educator, writer and herbalist, Judy Bluehorse Skelton is Nez Perce, Chickasaw and Cherokee. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.