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Native American Diabetes

By David Mendosa

Last Update: June 3, 2002

Maybe the folk traditions are best after all for some people with diabetes. Maybe progress isn't the latest product to emerge from the research labs.

Not too many people question the advantages that tested and standardized Western medicine offers over folk remedies. But a groundswell of voices has begun to protest the Western diet adopted by non-Western peoples.

“The Indian people had wisdom in what they ate.”

There's probably no group that has abandoned their traditional diet to a greater extent than the Native Americans, the American Indians. And judging by their rate of diabetes, no group has paid a greater price.

Now, however, the American Indian community has begun to reclaim it old dietary ways. One of the leaders of this movement is Elizabeth Gaines-Gray, better known as Liz Gray.

"Many tribes are looking at bringing back traditional foods," Liz says. Herself of Cherokee and Shawnee descent, in 1995 she founded the Native American Times newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma. With more than 45,000 readers, it's now the largest independently owned Indian newspaper in America.

She contacted me last year when her newspaper sponsored a national conference on diabetes. She told me then that she was "receiving inquiries from Native American tribes all over the U.S. and are getting lots of publicity."

They are considering another conference this year. Because of the success of the first conference, this year she launched a new organization, American Indian & Minority Health Inc.The organization's Web site will focus on diabetes among Native Americans.

"The issue is that traditional foods are more healthy than westernized refined carbohydrates," she says. "The Indian people had wisdom in what they ate."

Before the 1930's and 1940's diabetes was not a plague on the Native American population, she says. The biggest problem, she maintains, is the Federal food program.

"Those foods are totally stripped of nutrients, and that's all that the tribes on the reservations have," she says. "And nobody has done a study of what they are eating."

But some are helping. She mentions Carl Barnes, a Cherokee elder from Turpin, Oklahoma, who has reintroduced lower starch corn. He owns and operates a living seed bank of about 2,000 varieties and types of native corn grown by American Indians. "He works with several Native American groups to reintroduce traditional plants to their tribes through their community gardens," Liz says.

I've also written here about Native Seeds/SEARCH. This group finds, preserves, grows, and distributes heirloom seeds.

Another person promoting a return to a traditional diet is author North Welch, who is part Kickapoo descent. "I'm writing a book about the challenges that native peoples face because of the diabetes epidemic," he says. "What has happened to Native Americans is the abandonment of the traditional diet."

He tells me that his book is almost finished and that he will publish it in December. It will be called Native Americans' 21st Century War: Protecting Ancient Heritage Against Diabetes.

North manages The Native American Diabetes Initiative Web site, which promotes a healthy lifestyle. In May he established a Yahoo mailing list called Native American Diabetes. At this writing it already has 366 members.

The price that Native Americans pay for turning their back on their traditional diet in terms of their rate of diabetes is tremendous. They are 2.6 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites of similar age.

In fact, projections from the most recent National Health Interview Survey show that American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest age-adjusted prevalence of diabetes of any group in this country for which good data are available. In 2000 this rate was 18.8 percent. Non-Hispanic blacks followed with 15.0 percent. Then came Hispanic/Latino Americans at 13.6 percent and non-Hispanic whites at 7.4 percent.

Even the U.S. government has become concerned about how the Native American diet affects their high rate of diabetes. Maybe we are making some progress after all. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.

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