Native American Research and Training Center
Native American Diabetes Project
Danger In Our Bodies
Throughout history, American Indians have had many enemies. Some of them have been people and some of them have been diseases. And on many occasions it has been a combination of both people and diseases. What could possibly be the first form of germ warfare in the western hemisphere used against Indigenous peoples happened when colonists traded with Indians. Colonists gave them blankets in what first seemed like a very nice and peaceful gesture. However, a violent epidemic broke out that killed huge amount of Indigenous populations all over the Western hemisphere. It turns out that many of the blankets were infected with deadly smallpox. A number of foreign diseases like this came overseas with the Europeans as they conquered the western hemisphere. These diseases made it much easier to conquer the Americas.
The same thing continues to happen today, but in the more modern form of diabetes. Today, diabetes has reached epidemic proportions among Native Americans. Complications from diabetes are major causes of death and health problems in most Native American populations. One tribe in Arizona has the highest rate of diabetes in the world. About 50% of the adults between the ages of 30 and 64 have diabetes.
So what exactly is diabetes? Diabetes is a disease that affects the body's ability to produce or respond to insulin, a hormone that allows blood glucose (blood sugar) to enter the cells of the body and be used for energy. So when you don't have enough glucose it weakens your body resulting in low energy. Which makes you prone to high blood pressure and heart disease. Diabetes falls into two main categories: type 1, which usually occurs during childhood or adolescence, and type 2, the most common form of the disease, usually occurring after age 45.
Ten to twenty-one percent of all people with diabetes develop kidney disease. In 1995, 27,900 people initiated treatment for kidney failure because of diabetes. Among people with diabetes, the rate of diabetic kidney failure is six times higher among Native Americans. Diabetes is the most frequent cause of non-traumatic lower limb amputations. The risk of a leg amputation is 15 to 40 times greater for a person with diabetes. Each year 54,000 people lose their foot or leg to diabetes. Amputation rates among Native Americans are 3-4 times higher than the general population.
So why Native Americans? Why is diabetes so prevalent in Native Americans and why are the number of diabetics in Native American communities several times higher than the general population of the United States. The answer is far from short but the easiest way to explain it is that the change in life style and change in food caused by the westerners coming to the Americas.
In the public mind, shaped by Hollywood Westerns, a typical Native American was a big meat-eater, a "killer of buffalo...and stranger to vegetables." Few tribes in what is now the United States hunted before whites came (though some fished). But hunting went from an exception to a widespread, steady activity after Spanish conqueror Francisco Coronado's 16th-century explorations of the U.S. Southwest introduced horses and guns.
The Warrior served us well / it took its last breath
Earlier on, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains were dietary staples for many tribes. Iroquois grew 17 varieties of corn (or maize), seven types of squash, and 60 varieties of beans-a trio of major foods they called the "three sisters." As Captain John Smith, who led the English colony at Jamestown, VA, wrote in 1607, "Settlers would have starved if the Indians had not brought corn, squash, and beans to us." Living in what is now the U.S. Northeast, Iroquois also gathered a cornucopia of 34 wild fruits, 11 nut species, 12 kinds of edible roots, 38 types of bark, 6 fungi, and maple syrup.
This would perfectly explain the huge change in Native Americans' health. The move from corn (maize) vegetables, beans and fruits to meat forever changed the health of native Americas. Their diets increased in fats and unneeded protein from fat. This causes them to be prone to obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. I'm not saying that Native Americans shouldn't take responsibility for their own health, but a huge reason they are so unhealthy was the introduction of horses and guns that caused them to be able to hunt meat.
Even today, the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans pushes a "Westernized" diet. It ignores the health needs and cultural practices of Native Americans and other minorities. The much-adopted Standard American Diet and our fast-food culture, flush with animal proteins, fats, and sugars, exact an increasing toll on Native Americans, as on other minority populations.
Okay, enough with the all the facts and information. The diabetes problem among Native Americans is a personal issue because I am Native American, and at high risk for diabetes. Diabetes is one of the biggest problems we Native Americans have to face in our everyday lives. If you don't believe me, go spend some time in a reservation clinic anywhere in America and watch patient after patient come in with diabetes, obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease. That's the bold truth of the situation. Now we aren't being killed off by "manifest destiny," just the disease caused by it. This is the untold story of an epidemic that continues today. Things must be done to stop the growing diabetes epidemic in America.
Those of you who think you are getting off the hook by not being a minority better think again. In America nearly 16 million people suffer from diabetes and most of the time the people that have diabetes don't even know it. Everyone reading this is has a chance of having this disease. Some symptoms of the disease include frequent urination, unusual thirst, extreme hunger, unusual weight loss, extreme fatigue, irritability, frequent infections, blurred vision, cuts/bruises that are slow to heal, tingling/numbness in the hands or feet and recurring skin, gum or bladder infections just to name a few. Scared yet, you better be. Diabetes is a scary disease and could be knocking on your door sooner than you think.
So what can you do to stay healthy no matter what nationality you are? First thing to remember is diabetes is a disease that cannot be cured, not even with the mighty medicines we now have in the 21st century (I'm just now getting used to saying that). But it is a disease that you can take preventive measures to reduce your risk. For example eating healthy and exercising. So today when you walk down your usual strip of fast foods places, or slop shops, as I like to call them, remember that deep inside those McDonalds meal deals there could be a whole lot more than just that beef waiting for you. Our society is so fast-paced that it seems we are ignoring the number one thing, our health. Whenever possible, try to avoid fast foods. Make exercise apart of every day. If not for yourself, for the generations to follow. People that have a history of diabetes in their families are at higher risk than those whose families don't.
As for indigenous people, for us to survive this epidemic we must return to our very old traditional styles of food: vegetables, fruits, nuts, corn (maize). We need to start gardens in our neighborhoods and villages that can be used as a source of food. We, as Indigenous peoples, have always had a connection to the earth for spiritual reasons as well as reasons for living sustainable lives in touch with our mother earth. This kind of thinking needs to be a bigger part of our lives for us to continue to co-exist with the planet. As indigenous people we can set examples for the rest of the world to live in equality with the surrounding environment. We must continue to stay strong and continue to fight for our survival and our rights.
"Humankind has not woven the web of life, we are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves. All things connect."
-Chief Seattle, 1854
Please email me at:
Links to Other Dispatches
Rebecca - Eat something! It might save your life
Irene - It's a fact. Women rock!
Neda - Safety first and profits later? Don't bet on it with fast food companies
Jennifer - Some people just have "Healing Touch"
Stephen - What do 15 million Americans know that you don't? Find out!
Stephanie - Misunderstood or just insane? Cults in our nation