Obesity is a word that sits like a greasy donut hole in the back of the throat. The phonetics of it even sound gross. Yet, despite its throat clogging verbal formulation, obesity and its distant relatives “diabetes,” and “diabetic,” are all words that are used far too freely to describe Indian country.
Labeling in Indian country is nothing new. Indians have historically been labeled and categorized as noble, savages, heathens and objects obstructing progress. These historical labels no doubt had an effect on Indian lives, nations and overall treatment. In fact, blanket federal policies are often the result of overgeneralized labels that are meant to address all of Indian country, as if we are all the same.
The available data on American Indians does suggest that our communities do have issues around food, diet and health. For example, the American Diabetes Association notes that American Indians are more than 2 times more likely to have diabetes when compared non-Natives. Yet, data is just that – data. The story of the data can be told in numerous ways from varying perspectives. So, how will we tell the story of our health data? What is the issue?
If we weren’t the wiser, we’d be led to believe, according to the present story of American Indian health, that American Indian communities around the country are fat, sick, and in great need of help. Luckily, growing up in one of the most beautiful places in this world, Cochiti Pueblo, has taught me that labels like “fat,” “sick” and “in need,” are often given indiscriminately to American Indian communities by those who probably mean well, but perhaps lack the vocabulary to truly describe the places we call home and the people we call family. While some may be diabetic, the story is much more complex.
In one memorable conversation with another Pueblo woman, she described her village as a thriving community capable of not only addressing economic, health, and social disparities, but “poverty” as a root cause of the social ills that plagued it. The problem, as she said, is not that we have income levels that are below the state or national average. The problem is that once we start describing ourselves as “in poverty” we began to believe it, rather than focusing on the many tools we have in our 5,000 year old arsenal to address the issues that lead labels like “poverty.” In actuality, these one word torpedoes, the weapons that seem to crash and slash the very fabric of our communities, are a result of a long history of systematic, institutional war on that very fabric-our communities, our food systems, our relationships. Except now, the weapons are the focus rather than the war.
Similarly, while working in the field of food and agriculture, American Indian communities are often relegated to the “obese and diabetic” categories that seem to ignite a funding frenzy among philanthropists. The catch – we concede to the labels in order to get much needed grant money to fund our food and agriculture programs. When I operated a small nonprofit in my community, I saw other Native people using this negative and derogatory terminology to describe Pueblo people and communities. These individuals did this to get money to help us “poor obese and diabetic Pueblos.” This rhetoric suggested, in part, that pueblo communities needed more education and self-control rather than understanding the history of food system destruction through centralized colonial policies. In many instances, the people who meant well, that perpetuated these depictions of our communities, were not pueblo. They didn't understand our communities, traditions and empowering epistemologies. Their vocabulary was limited. While it’s easier to conceive solutions that focus on individual behavior, solutions that focus on individuals can only get us so far and cannot heal the root cause of the systemic destruction of our food systems – our wounded relationships to each other and to our lands.
Am I denying that many American Indian communities have higher than normal poverty rates? Higher than normal obesity rates? Diabetes rates? Absolutely not, but we can choose to NOT claim those titles either. In fact, focusing on those labels seem to exacerbate the problem. According to label theory, the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It is associated with the concepts of self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping, according to Wikipedia. So as we spout statistics that claim over half of the American Indian generation is sick or fat, what about the other half? Are we paving the way for the healthy individuals in our communities to succumb to the labels we claim in the name of funding?
Even more disturbing, by claiming obesity and disease statistics, we are focusing, as my friend said, on an issue that shouldn’t be the focus. The real issue is understanding how directed social and economic policies have wounded our food systems. In addition, the real issue is the need for resurgence of traditional food systems, locally controlled food systems, healthy familial ties, and ultimately, the need for our Native languages to increase the vocabulary of our young people to include words (preferably in our Native tongues) that strengthen our ancestral ties to our earth, to our land, and to each other, which is in fact, the true description of our health. Ultimately, the word obesity can sit in our mouths like greasy old donuts for years resulting in the exact same effect on a person – a person who feels like their situation is a disease that can not be helped or worse yet, they have no self-control over so they as the individual are the problem. Or…we can choose to feed our children words like “resurgence,” or “knowledge,” (there are far better descriptors in our Native languages) that reminds our young people we have far too many advantages, tools, knowledge, and resilient examples of even greater past challenges we have overcome as indigenous people rather than submit to the labels some well-meaning do-gooder has chosen to give us. We can choose community solutions to address our health and food needs because our communities were the very target that were meant to be destroyed in the first place.
Vena A-dae Romero-Briones, JD, LLM (Cochiti/Kiowa) is the Associate Director of Research- Native Agriculture and Programs for First Nations Development Institute and co-directs the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative. She currently sits on the USDA National Organic Standards Board.