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Diabetes and Native People: Rethinking Our Relationship with Sugar

Thing About Skins:
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QUICK STORY: It seems like every time I talk to my mom (which is pretty much everyday), she gives me a rundown about which family members are sick and/or injured. Usually it’s something not-too-serious, but she has a unique ability to expect the worst and assume that every cold is going to lead to H1N1.

Genetic memory—our folks always had to be on the lookout for diseases.

Well this most recent list of our family’s walking wounded, she told me about an uncle who has been sick with diabetes for a long time. She told me this time that is in the hospital to get his leg amputated. Obviously it could be worse, but life without your leg is a pretty profound change—it kinda left me stunned and thinking about all the many times I’ve seen other Native people losing battles to diabetes. From my own family I’ve seen body parts get chopped off, children traumatized, and then we see them back at the casino buffet line or drinking Red Bull or Pepsi until the next incident happens.

WHY AM I TELLING YOU THIS? I’m not one to talk about bad dietary habits as any sort of authority. Honestly. I have friends who are doing amazing things in wellness and nutrition and teaching Native people how get back to ancestral ways of co-existing with health and wellness and nutrition. Those folks, like Chelsey Luger and Anthony “Thosh” Collins from Well For Culture ( are incredible and the work that they’re doing is incredible, but honestly that’s not me. I’m honestly not focusing how to Indigenize my diet; instead I’m forcing myself not to eat Dark Chocolate Kit Kats every night or eat corn chips pretty much every single day.

Seriously. The struggle is real. 

Depending upon where I’m at, I am more or less likely to consume disgusting amounts of sugar—usually at night. I don’t know why that is (if anybody does, please explain it to me). But when I’m on the road, I’ll usually stop in someplace and get some trail-mix or Cracker Jacks; not the worst thing in the world, but still bad to be eating at 1:30 in the morning ...(plus, tells you that I have a lame social life.)

American Diabetes Association

I’m addicted to sugar. It seems like a whole bunch of us are. Statistically, Native people are twice as likely as white people to die from diabetes. We’re 2.5 times as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than white people. Those numbers are not indicative of merely lifestyle choices—it’s an addiction, a sickness. 

As such, it makes sense that we should treat it as a sickness. That doesn’t just mean that we go to the hospital to get treatment after we’re already afflicted with diabetes, but also aggressively set out with an educational campaign to Native children and within Native schools and within Tribal day care, etc, etc. I was fortunate to visit the Native American Community Academy (“NACA”) in Albuquerque and was immediately struck by all of the nutrition-themed posters around the school. NACA is a charter school for 6-12th graders and represents more than 30 tribal groups. 

NACA is part of the Albuquerque Public School District but it has the ability to hire its own school meal provider. The school’s Lunch Program and Healthy Snack Program provides that each school day, a private vendor brings freshly prepared lunches for all students at NACA. The school says that it is “striving to improve the quality of lunches by providing culturally sensitive meals such as buffalo instead of beef, more vegetable choices, and locally grown produce. Healthy, free snacks are also offered to students in the morning and after school.”

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Courtesy NACA

You don’t deal with sickness with shame or judgment or silence; you deal with it by bringing it out into the light of day and educating those most at risk for the sickness. 

I don’t have any quick solutions; I do know that the answers are within our communities and us. We have the power. I also know that I have very real (and somewhat frequent) dreams about having to give myself insulin injections. I’m terrified of needles. I also have seen wayyyy too many family members, friends, and other Native people have their lives compromised by diabetes at very young ages. 

I know diabetes, like any disease, is not just about willpower. But I also know that every single time I pass up a donut (I love em—I should be a cop) or a container of ice cream that I am winning a victory, not only for myself but also because my son sees me exercising healthier habits. I mean, I will splurge from time to time—we all deserve it sometimes—but I have to remind myself that it is a disease and I am an addict and what’s a safe amount of heroin to give a heroin addict?

I don’t know the answers. I can’t judge. All I can say is that I try and I hope some of you are willing to try with me. If any of you want to help support each other in our struggle with sugar, please email me at Maybe we can figure out something together—we need each other. 

Love you all.

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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