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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 15, 2003 - Issue 100


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Facing the Windigo

by Office of Women's Health
note: November is National Diabetes Month.

On dark winter nights filled with raging black clouds, and howling winds, my Grandmother would tell tales of the Windigo. Huge, terrifying, the Windigo lived at the edge of the community and would devour the body and soul of anyone who wandered into its reach. As I grew older, she told me that the Windigo stories she knew had emerged from times of famine when some people had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. For their acts, they were sent away to the depths of the forest to spend their time alone satisfying their craving for human flesh and blood.

But even as a child, I came to realize that the Windigo did not live so very far removed from the people. It was among us.. It took its victims piece-by-piece, starting with the toes then moving upward, to the feet, then the lower leg, upper leg, until family and Elders died of things like gangrene, kidney failure, heart attack, and stroke. The Windigo was very real, only it went by another name, Diabetes.

With elevated blood-sugar levels, high cholesterol and blood pressure, too much weight, smoking, and bad diet rampant in ourselves and in our families, Indian women face the Windigo in a very real sense everyday. And just to up the stakes a bit more, research is suggesting that we may even have a tendency within our genes that invites the Windigo in.

We are very aware that Type 2 or non-insulin dependent Diabetes is seen ten times more often among American Indians than in the White population. Nationally, almost 21 percent of our Elders have it, and in some communities, over half the Elder population has it. More troubling than this is the fact that it is now showing up in children at an increasing rate, especially those born of mothers who either had or developed Diabetes when they became pregnant.

For me, the favorite part of my Grandmother's stories was when the community put their skills and experience together to kill the Windigo and burn his body to ash so that he would never rise again. So too, I hear similar stories today of how Indian people are committing their brains and bodies to the eradication of the Windigo called Diabetes.

The good part of this story starts with the Tohono O'Odham people who have lived in the Sonoran Desert near the Gila River, Arizona, since the beginning of time. For 30 years, they have been gifting the rest of us with their blood and bodies by participating in a massive study of Diabetes being undertaken by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Working closely with dedicated scientists, the Tohono O'Odham have shown us the path to health that we must take in order to face our own Windigo and reduce it to ash. We owe it to ourselves and to the sacrifice of the Tohono O'Odham Nation to benefit from that research by learning how to prevent and control Diabetes.

Here are some ways to face the Windigo of Diabetes based on research among the Tohono O'Odham people.
Take an honest look at your risk factors. If you have any of the following, consider getting screened for Diabetes.

  • Being older than 10 in children, 45 in adults
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a close family member (parent, brother, sister) who has or had Diabetes
  • Having had Diabetes when you were pregnant or being born to a mother who had Diabetes
  • Belonging to the African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American or Pacific Islander, or American Indian populations

For many people, there are no signs and symptoms for Diabetes. But the following may signal its presence.

  • Being very tired a lot
  • Being very thirsty all the time
  • Feeling sick to your stomach a lot
  • Having to urinate often
  • Losing weight
  • Blurred vision
  • Frequent infections
  • Wounds or sores that heal very slowly
  • Dark or thickened skin with a velvety texture around the neck or in the armpits (acanthosis nigricans) especially in children
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol

Being diagnosed or having a family member diagnosed with Diabetes can be devastating. Feelings of anger or denial may prevent you from seeking the help or ignoring the advice of doctors, nutritionists and family counselors at first. Remember, the first step to controlling the Diabetes Windigo, is facing it honestly and working it into a positive lifestyle

  • Follow a healthy diet that is low in fats, carbohydrates and sugar as well as alcohol.
  • Stop smoking to remove further wear and tear on your lungs and heart.
  • Get regular exercise to help lower your blood-sugar level, lose weight and build heart strength.
  • Maintain an optimal weight for your height and activity level
  • Take all Diabetes medication exactly as prescribed.
  • Check your blood-sugar level regularly and try to keep within a normal range as much as possible.
  • Lower your stress levels by working on a positive attitude
  • Take care of your body, with a special focus on oral health, eye care, skin care, foot care, and heart health.

The gift of the Tohono O'Odham Nation is also the basis of many wonderful resources for people with Diabetes. Below is only a sample.

Small Steps, Big Rewards: Your Game plan for Preventing Type 2 Diabetes
This brochure is available for free and can be downloaded from

For many more brochures, contact,

National Diabetes Education Program,
1 Diabetes Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3600 (Please use 9-digit ZIP code)
Phone: (301) 654-3327
Fax: (301) 907-8906

Learn about how the Tohono O'Odham people helped unravel the mysteries of Diabetes at the following Web site:

Or contact the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse for a list of publications at:

National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: 1-800-860-8747 or (301) 654-3327
Fax: (301) 907-8906

The American Diabetes Association has set up a comprehensive free information resource on living well with Diabetes. You can find it at;

American Diabetes Association
ATTN: National Call Center
1701 North Beauregard Street
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone: 1-800-342-2383

Pick Your Path to Health is a national public health education campaign sponsored by the Office on Women's Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For more information about the campaign, please call 1-800-994-WOMAN or 1-888-220-5446 (TDD), or visit the National Women's Health Information Center at To request weekly health tips by e-mail, click on the box that says, "Click Here for weekly health tips by e-mail."

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

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