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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 10, 2004 - Issue 104


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Let's Get Healthy: Indian Country’s New Year’s Resolution

credits: Feather Dancer by John Nieto

Feather Dancer by John NietoIn one horrible way, Indian country is fully in step with, or perhaps even one step behind, the rest of America: obesity is rampant; in varying degrees, diabetes is a scourge upon all tribes. Too many of us are in sad physical shape.

Resolved in this new year: let’s get smart, get healthy; eat well and in moderation; lay off alcohol and drugs; and exercise. While we are at it: let’s treat each other better; seek inner peace; let’s try to be happy.

As PGA Pro Notah Begay III stressed recently at the NCAI convention: "My mother always stressed to me, when you have difficulties, reflect on your culture."

Acknowledging that diabetes is quickly becoming the greatest killer of Indian people, Begay vowed to be an advocate in the fight for a healthy Indian country. Or, as NCAI president Tex Hall told the same audience: "Healthy is hot! Treaties, not diabetes!"

The vision is one of health, of a fit and trim Indian people. The hope and the wish is for an Indian people who feel good from the power of self-love and the privilege of good wind in the lungs, strong legs, good digestion, good relations and the inner grit that can feed spirit. For those fortunate ones born into healthy bodies, a reminder to value the gift, to resolve to care for and use our bodies to good cause. Strengthen rather than weaken yourselves, so that your strength may help your relatives - old and young - who need you.

We offer this vision of healthy body and healthy spirit as the greatest of our aspirations, and as the most proper common resolution we can muster. It is probably the greatest common challenge of our peoples and certainly, we are not in the least alone in this heartfelt wish.

Throughout Indian country, numerous tribes, projects and individuals have taken up the battle represented by poor diet, obesity and the often resulting adult onset diabetes, the tragic scourge that was virtually unknown in our communities before 1900 but now attacks hundreds of thousands of our people, even very young children. This growing new consciousness was gratifyingly evident at the NCAI, where participants shared a long walk to raise health and fitness awareness and to make the point that we are all in this together. It is evident among many tribal projects developing what scholar Gary Nabhan calls "foods with true American roots."

There is a growing consciousness of the positive health impact of good food on our people. Across Indian country, many tribes are committing to the process of recovering our health through our traditional knowledge of food. More and more tribes maintain their own seed banks now while family and even tribal gardens are coming back.

Among the Haudenosaunee, the Indian corn cuisine is in a revival as part of the get-healthy movement. The emphasis is to preserve the old seed, to prepare healthy foods for balanced nutrition, and to have pride in one’s culture. Projects such as Daybreak Farming and Food Project, the Pinewoods Community Chefs Collaborative and others have generated growing interest in the value of the traditional foods. From the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, Quebec, for instance, a Diabetes Wampum Belt has traveled more than 1,500 miles to more than a dozen communities. Carried by walkers, bicyclists, canoes and runners, the message of the belt is health.

Marietta King, Blackfeet, is among Indian authors making a contribution. Her book, "Native American: Food is Medicine," explores the prevention and control of diabetes and hyperinsulinemia. It introduces the "Renewal of Life: Food Journal," which assists people in tracking their daily intake of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. "Nobody wants to give up fry bread," she says. "But there are ways to prepare it so it’s not so harmful to us."

Among Southwestern Native communities, Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Seed Savers Exchange have re-propagated hundreds of varieties of American Indian corn, beans, squash, chilies and other foods and medicines. Many of these were nearly extinct. At Gila River, Ariz., where the Native population suffers extremely high rates of diabetes, the new Kai restaurant, which opened in October 2000, offers foods prepared from traditional Native crops and many foodstuffs grown on the reservation.

At Pine Ridge, S.D., Billy Mills’ Running Strong for American Indian Youth programs assist in preparing the ground for nearly 500 family gardens every summer. For many, their own gardens constitute the only source of fresh vegetables. Nutritionists call many traditional foods, such as beans, acorns and mesquite "slow release foods." They are more slowly digested and thus absorbed by the body in more efficient and healthy ways.

The 52 Native nations that participate in the InterTribal Bison Cooperative aim to restore buffalo herds on Indian tribal lands. Since 1990 they have worked successfully to expand and build buffalo projects. But theirs is not simply a commercial effort; it involves the continuity and recovery of culture and good health through the proper relation with an animal considered sacred by numerous tribes. Buffalo meat - particularly that of grass-fed animals - is low in fat and high in energy. We cannot overstate the importance and necessity of these many fine Indian country programs and initiatives.

Collaboration between food production, good nutritional education and vigorous exercise programs is also crucial. The federal government must help more. It is after all responsible for the large-scale destruction of Indian economies and self-sufficient cultures - the foundations of healthy American Indian food production - and responsible for introducing the infamous commodity foods that have wreaked havoc on Native bodies. The government is by treaty and policy, responsible for Indian health. But according to a Civil Rights Commission report, the feds spend about $5,000 per capita each year for health care for the general U.S. population and $3,803 for federal prisoners, but only $1,914 per capita for Indian health care. This is a travesty.

The list goes on. The link between good food and good health is becoming more known. Eating more Native and natural foods is one half the strategy of health and nutrition. Exercise, breaking a sweat, is the other requisite. Highly recommended in this context: "Rez-Robics" a funny and very useful video for and by Indians by DreamCatchers Inc. and Navajo Health Promotions.

Not three decades ago, cigarette smoking was completely acceptable in most of society. Conscious campaigning has taught us to see cigarette smoking for the unhealthy activity that it is. The growing movement toward a healthy lifestyle in Indian country is very welcome. In 2004, let’s exercise; let’s eat right; let’s restore the strength of good health to our present and future generations.

Note: Indian communities can receive free copies of "Rez-Robics" by sending a self-addressed box or padded envelope big enough for two VHS videotapes along with five dollars worth of postage stamps (no meter labels) to DreamCatchers Inc., 23852 PCH #766, Malibu, CA 90265. For more information, visit or e-mail

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