Diabetes isn't destiny

by Jodi Peterson

"I want to tell Native kids that they're not sentenced to get diabetes. They have a choice," says Notah Begay III, a Native American professional golfer who was interviewed recently on National Public Radio's Native America Calling.

The statistics are alarming. Diabetes has increased in every segment of American society over the past few decades, but among Indians, the rate is roughly double that of whites. Begay, a New Mexican, warns: "This is the first generation that may not outlive their parents due to obesity and Type 2 diabetes."

The two veteran Western writers who crafted our cover-story package believe that tribal diabetes is directly linked to displacement from the land and disconnection from traditional lifestyles. Lisa Jones focuses on the three tribes on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation, and Diana Hartel takes a personal look at the histories of her family and the tribes along the Klamath River in Oregon and California. But they find a common theme in the unforeseen consequences of damming rivers.

The changes wrought by dams helped tip the tribes into obesity and ill health. Diabetes has become a heartbreaking epidemic, but it can be addressed. "I couldn't tell you how to prevent cancer," Begay says. "I can't tell you how to prevent leukemia. Type 2 diabetes, I guarantee you I can help you prevent that." Across the West's Indian Country, the Notah Begay III Foundation and other efforts are encouraging young people to change their diets and get more exercise, the basic weapons against diabetes. NFL quarterback Sam Bradford, an enrolled Cherokee, recently joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a special event in which they planted a garden of heirloom Indian crops and urged Native youngsters to get outdoors and be active.

Despite the momentum of unhealthy habits and a perpetually underfunded Indian Health Service, these individual efforts can help. Caller after caller on the radio talk show described personal encounters with diabetes -- and also explained what they're doing about it. Michael, from Tohatchi, N.M., said that diabetes destroyed most of his eyesight. He still takes daily walks, he reports, "but I never see any kids out walking around, just me and my dogs." Ken, on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, lost his father, brother, and aunts and uncles to diabetes. "Now I'm walking every day. I cook better, get more fruits and vegetables," he said. "But you have to keep working at it."

The stories of the Fort Berthold and Klamath tribes are a history of deep loss. As a nation, we cannot turn back the clock; we can never completely restore to the tribes the natural resources that were taken from them -- resources that once shaped their way of life. But we can help them reconstruct. And for the Klamath tribes, removing the dams and bringing back their traditional food source, the salmon, is a start.

© High Country News