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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 13, 2003 - Issue 102


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Pathways to Better Health: A Feature of the Pick Your Path to Health Campaign
Our Traditions Ensure Strong Hearts

by Cathy McCarthy Anishinaabe - Metis (non status)
art Northern Dancer at Taos by John Nieto

Today, we face a silent, subtle enemy that has the ability to slip through our defenses and kill us slowly from within. The name of this killer is cardiovascular disease (CVD) or more commonly, heart disease. CVD includes a long list of specific diseases that not only affect the heart, but also veins, arteries, and blood. In any given year, 27 percent of deaths among Indian women and 25 percent among Indian men are direct results of CVD. As the mortality rate for CVD has declined in the past three decades by more than 50 percent in the general population of the United States, it has risen dramatically among Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The answer to how and why CVD has become so widespread in our communities lies partially in how our way of life has been changing over the past decades. The key to reversing the growth of CVD among Indian people may very well lie in returning to our traditional paths of better health. This said, we must recognize that there are physical factors such as the natural effects of aging and genetic or familial weaknesses that cannot be controlled. At the same time, however, there is still much that we can do to improve our chances of living well with strong hearts.

Cigarette Smoking
While the general population in America is choosing to butt-out their cigarettes, Indian people are taking up the habit at increased rates that look suspiciously like the rates for CVD. A full 40 percent of our people smoke. It is no coincidence that the risk of heart attack is two times greater in smokers, and the risk of death from heart attack is four times greater. Even if you don't smoke yourself, exposure to secondhand smoke from friends and family increases your heart disease risk almost as much as that of smokers.

Smoking cigarettes is not part of our traditions. Taking smoke into our lungs and bodies is the opposite of taking ceremonial smoke into our mouths and then sending it skyward with our prayers. The first thing we can do to reverse CVD is to abandon this predominant culture habit and return to our own healthy and spiritual ways of using the gift of tobacco.

Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol was introduced by European traders and explorers as part of their quest for land, goods, and services. Because the effects of alcohol vaguely resembled the effects of some herbs and plants used as medicine and in spiritual ceremony, Indian people came to regard it as mysterious or holy. In the Lakota language, alcohol is known as Mni Wakan, or "sacred water." But, as we now know, there is nothing sacred in this substance. Alcohol is not part of our traditions.

In addition to the many diseases and suffering moderate to heavy drinking causes, it can also result in high blood pressure, which, in turn, increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. Reducing alcohol consumption or eliminating it altogether is an essential act of sovereignty, of taking back what belongs to us. Nothing more needs to be said in this regard.

Diet and Nutrition
Hamburgers, French fries, pizza, candy bars, cakes, pies, sugary soda, and potato chips were never part of our traditional diets. Even fry bread, a food that has taken on the status of tradition, originates with the predominant society's system of rationing flour and lard one hundred years ago. But wherever you go on the Rez or in the city, you will find these foods more readily available than fresh fruit and vegetables. The high fat content and the sugar in these foods contribute directly to obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, all major risk factors for CVD.

Our traditional foods, like bison, venison, fish, beans, squash and corn, tuberous vegetables, berries, and wild rice are low in fat, high in fiber, and contain elements that actually promote high density lipoproteins (HDL) or good cholesterol. HDLs help remove the LDLs that clog the arteries and reduce the body's blood flow.. The nutritional key to strong hearts may very well lie in rediscovering traditional cuisine. The old recipes are still cherished within the hearts and minds of the Elders. All we need to do is ask them. Who knows, with the increased focus on heart health that is sweeping the general population in America, we might open up a new source of wealth in restaurants featuring American Indian cuisine.

Perhaps our greatest single enemy in the war on CVD is the television set, the boob tube, the one-eyed babysitter. It is so much easier to plant ourselves and our children in front of the TV than to actively engage our bodies and minds in exercise and motion. The TV set and the values it promotes are not part of our traditions. Walking, working, dancing, playing, and just being in close relationship with Mother Earth and each other are what we were born to do.

Another way, then, to combat CVD is to replace many of the hours spent sitting in front of the TV with exercise and physical activity. Exercise doesn't need to involve expensive equipment or designer shoes and clothes. It can be as simple as taking an evening walk with a friend, getting the family out to the local park or school gym to throw a few hoops, or kick a ball around, or attending a local PowWow or wacipi and dancing up a storm. So long as you get your heart working hard for 30 minutes at least three times a week, you are significantly lowering your risk of CVD as well as other diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Regular Healthy Heart Checkups
Finally, for those risk factors like aging and genetics that are out of our control, our best weapon is a comprehensive healthy heart checkup as part of our regular physical examination. A general healthy heart checkup includes:

  • A blood test that measures the amounts of HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Testing for diabetes
  • Measurement of blood pressure and pulse
  • Examination of the heart and lungs with a stethoscope

It is heartening to know that the enemy of CVD can be beaten back with common sense solutions that involve little to no expense. But what is good to keep before us is that the answer to maintaining healthy hearts has always been at our fingertips and is rooted in our traditions. Strong hearts are part of who we are, who we have always been, and who we will be.

Here are some resources for more information on keeping yourself and your family heart healthy.

WISEWOMAN: Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, E-mail:
4770 Buford Highway, N.E., K-26
Atlanta, GA 30341-3724
Telephone: 1-770-488-5820
Fax for free publications: 1-888 -232-4674

4 Your Heart, The National Women's Health Information Center
Telephone: 1-800-994-9662 (toll free)

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 copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

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