Diabetes the Native American Way
By Mischa Geracoulis
Though diabetes is exploding worldwide,
the tribes of the American Southwest take the lead. The ravages of diabetes in
the U.S. Native American population are harder hitting than in any other ethnic
group in the country. Nonexistent four and five generations ago, half of their
adult population now suffers with the disease. Prevailing conventional medicine
would have us believe that this is due to genetics. However, a sober study of
the situation reveals it is not a problem with heredity, but with history.
In PBS’s documentary series “Unnatural
Causes,” Donald Warne, M.D., president of American Indian Health Management
& Policy and adjunct clinical professor, Arizona State University College
of Law, narrates a back story that negates the popularized “thrifty gene”
explanation for Native American diabetes.
There is a strong parallel between the
development of diabetes and the years of environmental alterations in the U.S.
Southwest. Warne explains that between the 1920s and ‘30s, prior to the damming
of Arizona’s rivers (to divert water into Caucasian communities), diabetes was
Originally a hunter-gatherer society,
the tribes of the Southwest lived on foods high in fiber, low in fat, and low
on the glycemic index (the measure of foods’ effects on blood sugar levels).
But with the construction of the famed Hoover Dam, along with Arizona’s
twenty-some other dams, tribal hunter-gather-farming economies — along with the
traditional diet and home life — were effectively halted.
Without fertile riverbeds or freedom to
roam, Native American communities were thrust into poverty, commencing a cycle
of forced dependency on U.S. governmental assistance. Government treaties
penned such promises as access to land (usually in the form of reservations),
quality food, clean water, and health care for the tribes. In reality, those
promises were largely unfulfilled.
Surplus commodities like white flour,
lard, refined sugars, and processed foods replaced the traditional whole-foods
diet. Not only were these provisions alien to Native Americans, but they were
rationed, based on a contrived system of merit. Consequently, these changes
contributed to manufacture of a disease previously unknown to tribal people.
Navajo Tribal community cultural
leader, Benjamin Hale, points out, “What was once a true nuclear family — with
men hunting, women gathering, both farming, and grandparents caring for the
children during the workday — was reduced to a broken home. This was the birth
of Welfare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the scheme of
things today. But education is the change agent and the way out of this cycle.”
This situation is not unique to Arizona
as Deborah Sanchez, a Barbareņo Chumash Tribal Council Co-chair, Director of
Wishtoyo Foundation, board member of the Chumash Women’s Elder Council, and Los
Angeles Superior Court Judge, has stated.
“There is a larger context for the
health crisis. Primarily along the southern and central coasts of what is now
California, there are no reservations. We have no land base to practice our
ceremonies or culture. Historical events brought our people to near extinction,
and we now live scattered along the coastal communities of Los Angeles, Orange,
Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Many residual aspects of history
influence our health — namely, lack of access to native homelands and natural
resources, commodified and polluted resources, and political designations that
affect our rights to benefits and services.”
Fred Collins, Northern Chumash Tribal
Council leader in San Luis Obispo, advocates health and self-reliance for his
people through grassroots agriculture and local cooperative business. Collins
teaches “that the key to healing diabetes is to transition from a white diet
(bleached flour, refined sugar and salt, chemicalized packaged foods) to a
green diet (food from Mother Earth).”
That said, Collins emphasizes that
healing the physical body through dietary improvements is only part of the
equation. Freedom to experience a connection to Mother Earth, practice cultural
and spiritual traditions, and live on ancestral land is critical to the healing
of individuals, communities, and the cycle of acculturation. To that end,
Collins and the Northern Chumash operate a teaching farm with cutting-edge
technology in organic vertical farming, in addition to work that includes
community and political outreach, conservation, and land and heritage
Benjamin Hale maintains that diabetes
and other illnesses are symptomatic of a deeper problem. Explaining, “Environmental
changes that adversely affected tribal societies also disconnected people from
the land and water, which was as much a source of spiritual and cultural
sustenance as physical. There is no way to return to the days before change, so
we must do what we can here and now.
Instead of reacting to the problem and
becoming reliant upon doctors and pharmaceuticals, we can become educated.
Modern medicine definitely has its role; ideally, it would be used in
conjunction with traditional healing practices — though ultimately, wellness
comes from within, from a balanced body, mind, and spirit.”
Hale continues, “Our model of education
is based on ‘our people healing our people.’
We utilize experts from Native American communities to teach community
members to avoid the ills of packaged, processed foods, refined sugars and
chemical additives. For example, we teach how to shop in supermarkets by
selecting foods only from the outer aisles.
Our cultural traditions, spiritual
beliefs and practices must also be taught because to embody the culture is to
prevent future generations from going down an unhealthy path. Health starts at
home; so we teach our children to create positive daily habits in ways that tap
their natural interests and through our cultural activities.”
The Diabetes Recovery Program,
developed by Gabriel Cousens M.D., dispels the myth that diabetes is an
incurable life sentence. From his clinic in Patagonia, Arizona, Dr. Cousens,
together with local tribal chiefs, report continual effectiveness in reversing
diabetes in Native Americans, as well as people of other ethnic groups. Through
the program (founded on an indigenous whole-foods diet free of processed foods
and sugars), on average, people are able to heal within a period of a few
The success of this program and similar
others, such as Seva Foundation’s Native American Health Program in Berkeley,
California, also refute western medicine’s concept of genetic predisposition.
Cousens asserts that even if an individual has a genetic propensity for
diabetes, the expression of it will not occur so long as that individual keeps
to a natural, whole-foods lifestyle.
Furthermore, reiterating the wisdom of
Benjamin Hale and Fred Collins, both Cousens’ and Seva’s programs are comprehensive,
not limited to the physical body. Says Hale, “Native Americans have long known
what modern medicine is only beginning to grasp — that the human being is
industrial complex often allocates resources to suit the desires of
policymakers rather than the well-being of their constituents. Millions of
dollars will likely continue to be spent on Native American diabetes genetics
research to propagate a campaign that implicates Native American DNA as the
source of the problem; whereas a mere fraction of that funding could be spent
to employ teachers of nutrition and physical education in the diabetes-stricken
Extending beyond spheres of public
health and genetics research, at its core, Native American diabetes is a matter
of social justice and economics, and is a 911 call for the return to
traditional ways and spiritual healing.
Mischa Geracoulis is
a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. With a background in political and
social sciences, her body of work reflects issues of identity, myriad paths to
truth and justice, and the multifaceted human condition.