“Sugar Sickness”: A Native American Diabetic Perspective

The History

In my Kiowa tribal language, there is a word for diabetes; it’s translates to “sugar sickness.”  This word only came into being after our people were forced to live on a reservation and forbidden to leave for any reason.  Our pre-reservation traditional diet consisted of buffalo (found to be the leanest of meat), elk, deer, rabbit, fish, and wild fruit, with fresh drinking water.

These things were our main staple for hundreds of years. Post reservation, we were given “rations” provided by the US Army.  Suddenly our food consisted of flour, lard, rice, and other items which European culture had consumed for centuries.  

It has been scientifically proven that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples all over the world have higher rates of diabetes due to our bodily systems not accustomed to the digestion of wheat based products. Our bodies turn it into sugar very quickly, resulting in our people having the highest rate of diabetes and alcoholism in the U.S.  

This all began in the mid-1800, barely a hundred years ago. Many tribal people still receive “commodities” and it’s only been within the last 15-20 years that fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat have been added.

The Challenge

Because food was never a guarantee pre/post reservation, it not only was a life source but a way to express the sincerest expressions in my tribe.  To honor a loved one in the highest of ways is to feed all the people and have enough to send home with whoever may want it. 

Never is a visitor to the home asked if they are hungry and would like something to eat, rather a meal is made for them and they eat because it is disrespectful to refuse what could be someone’s last bit of food or the best that was being saved for their own family. 

Life events from birth to death and everything in between are acknowledged with the gathering of people to eat together. So when most staples available from a repressed society are unhealthy, yet the choice to maintain cultural significance and preservation of specific tribal ways, the challenge can be overwhelming.

The Hope

Many Native American Tribes are making great strides in health and wellness programs that involve returning to pre-reservation diets. Plains tribes have buffalo herds and teach traditional ways to butcher, cook, and use all parts of the animal and distribute accordingly to their people. 

Tribes of the Northwest are doing the same with salmon, and Eastern tribes are reintroducing planting of traditional foods as well. Tribes are promoting traditional games to be learned and played for exercise, since this is how our warriors of the past trained. 

Because diabetes is generational among Native American families, some tribes have Family Camps to teach how to better manage the “Sugar Sickness.”  In these things, I am encouraged, motivated, and maintain hope.  

Presented by: Elizabeth Battiest

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