Still Killing Us—Neither Slowly nor Softly


More than a decade ago the clinicians at our American Indian non-profit organization wrote a series of articles related to addiction, Type 2 Diabetes and intergenerational stress with the beginning titles “Killing Us Slowly.” These articles still exist on a number of websites as well as our T.K. Wolf website. While the content of the articles is still accurate and relevant, the information is even more vital today as we have moved forward by quantum leaps in research and knowledge. But there is one change: We are now being killed neither slowly nor softly. And our ancestors had knowledge that is only now being recognized by dominant culture.

Let’s begin with two quizzes that we posted at the recent Greater Tulsa American Indian Art Festival:

Which of these factors are important in obesity, Types 1, 2 and 3 Diabetes (Alzheimer’s)?

1. High carb diets

2. Trans-fats in diet

3. Grains

4. Antibiotics fed to livestock

5. Grains fed to livestock

6. Gut organisms

7. All of the above

Which of these practices kept American Indians healthy before European Conquest?

1. Eating non-farmed meats—buffalo, fish, venison, etc.

2. Eating lye or lime treated corn (Nixtamalization) to release protein—not High Fructose Corn Syrup!

3. Eating non-farmed berries, nuts, mushrooms, plants, etc.

4. Eating foods in season

5. All of the above

The give-away answer for both questions is “All of the above.” But did you notice something in the first question that you are not accustomed to seeing? We know that statistics have been showing for some time that we American Indians are at high risk for Type Two Diabetes and that it is no longer just affecting our adults but now our children. In fact, a colleague working on a reservation in the southwest wrote recently about his experiences with youth where there is a 95 percent obesity and Type 2 Diabetes rate. He said, “It feels like a death match we are currently losing.” But, what’s this Type 3 Diabetes (Alzheimer’s)?

In the last few years studies at NIH and prestigious universities have been researching the issue of insulin resistance in the brain and the high rates of Type 2 Diabetics who develop Alzheimer’s. It’s not new that insulin is needed for the brain to function properly, but the understanding that this could be related to the so-called plaques that form in the brain with Alzheimer’s is new.

It’s not that we Indians haven’t had enough health problems already. As I’ve reported in numerous writings and settings, accidents and suicide kill Indian children and youth in far larger numbers than any other racial group. Later in life, heart disease and chronic liver disease/cirrhosis kill Indian adults greatly out of proportion to other races. We have the highest incidence of alcoholism of any racial group. Directly related to the depression, PTSD and stress related diseases that Indians suffer, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that American Indians experience violence at a rate about 2½ times the national rate for all races and that Indians are more likely than people of other races to suffer violence from people of another racial group with the majority of perpetrators non-Indian males. Especially critical to the present discussion is that a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation Health report found Indians without health insurance have inadequate access to health care with limited access to prevention services and a much higher risk that chronic problems will become more serious. Given our history and present conditions, how can we respond to this latest warning about Alzheimer’s and dementia?

Good news, bad news

This is a “good news, bad news story.” The good news is that in advance of conventional Western medicine, American Indian healthcare activists began showing more than a decade ago that Type 2 Diabetes can be prevented and treated by diet. That means that Alzheimer’s can be prevented! That there is prevention for Alzheimer’s is very big news in the medical community. The bad news is that if we as Indian people don’t immediately respond with appropriate integration of ancestral practices, we are in for very hard times—a later stage of conquest and greed. But with many countries now experiencing high rates of Type Two Diabetes and related diseases, this conquest now affects the world.

The conquerors this time are global corporations that have knowledgeably and purposely introduced high fructose corn syrup into almost all foods with the effects of skyrocketing disease rates beyond imagination. Nutrition researcher John Yudkin wrote Pure, White and Deadly in 1972 saying that sugar was the culprit in Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. The result was a furious response from the food industry and scientific gatekeepers. He was effectively sidelined until his death. Engineered for the greatest sweetness, numerous studies now demonstrate that intense sweeteners, both caloric and artificial non-caloric, become the chosen addictive drug over cocaine, even for cocaine addicts. We know that grains and antibiotics have for some time been fed to animals for the purpose of fattening them earlier for market. Not only does this practice provide hints for our human obesity, it affects our defenses against infectious disease and removes important gut organisms now found to be related to appetite and a number of diseases.

Too many health professionals continue to go along with erroneous diet recommendations in daily television and newspapers. Unfortunately, there are still programs pushing high sugar juices and other supposedly healthy high carbohydrate foods for our children that result in obesity and Type 2 Diabetes in our young. Such programs also place children in exercise programs that, while critical to mental and physical health and functioning, are not sufficient to change the rates of obesity and diabetes—as noted at the recent World Diabetes Congress in 2013. Beyond that, we know that fat cells in fetuses formed from high sugar diets in the mother will have life-long impact on her children after birth.

What is the general public to make of the continuous, but often conflicting, reports on diet in the media? Increasingly, there is little question about the impact of sugars of any kind—cane or beet, honey, or high fructose corn sugar. The US has just released new labeling requirements for sugars and there are new regulations that all but eliminate artificial trans-fats. Announcing that obesity now affects a half billion people in the world, the World Health Organization has just submitted recommendations to reduce the amount of daily total sugar intake to the amount in a half can of soda. In a different arena, the US has just released new rules limiting the use of antibiotics to sick animals only.

Agriculture, and the so-called beginning of civilization, first developed in the Middle East and Mediterranean about 10,000 years ago and would eventually include wheat, barley, rye and oats. Importantly, this time period is after our ancestors were well established on this continent. While scientists continue to argue over the impact of grains and gluten on the modern diet for most people, we do have research showing that the last people to receive grains worldwide have the highest rates of alcoholism. So just as in those who are lactose intolerant, we would be well advised to avoid these grains when possible. There is little question that proteins such as non-farmed fish, venison and buffalo, along with nuts, berries, leafy plants and vegetables are good for us. People also learn that unlike, high glycemic carbohydrates, proteins and good fats are filling and decrease the desire for sweet foods.

Wisdom from our ancestors

We say that we Indians value our children and our elders. We have watched our elders lose limbs from Diabetes for years. Are we now to watch them lose their minds with Type 3 Diabetes as well? If you haven’t seen elders with Alzheimer’s it may be time to view their suffering and those of others around them. Having visited Indian elders in nursing homes, I know that their families could no longer provide safe care for them, but I also know their pain wasn’t just a matter of having bad memories. They suffered greatly from fear and confusion. Is that how we are to honor our elders?

This time our peoples are ahead of dominant culture in knowledge. The ways for individuals and tribes to respond to this challenge are many. One recognized Indian artist literally removes breads and sugar drinks from the hands of Indians who grew up only knowing unhealthy commodity-based and fast foods. A tribe elder goes out to her yard to pick indigenous plants in preparing her daily meals. A younger tribe adult reports weekly on his garden that fills a small city lot. A Lakota woman raises her own grass fed buffalo calves to provide healthy meat for her diabetic husband. Tribes have been developing buffalo ranches for some time. Elders teach traditional knowledge to the young and their parents in Indian education programs in public schools. We can provide a model for the world.

If we look at the factors stated in the quizzes at the beginning of this article we have guidelines for what we need to do, and can do, to bring back our pre-Columbian traditions and serve the well-being of all our people—as well as that of all our relations. Yes, there is now new science behind us, but we have long had traditions that kept us healthy until they were forcefully removed. It is our time to act and celebrate what we know and have known for so long. We have long recognized plants and foods as medicine. Our people survived by knowing which ones were toxic. We can treat corn with the ashes from fires that have cooked our meals for thousands of years. We can continue our ceremonies that celebrate the seasons with the bounty from our sacred lands. Our ancestors show us the way.

Ann Dapice received a Ph.D in psychology, sociology and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. She is Director of Education and Research for T.K. Wolf, Inc., a 501(c)(3) American Indian organization and Founder/Executive Director, Institute of Values Inquiry. Her recent awards include the Interfaith Award sponsored by Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, Jewish Federation of Tulsa, Islamic Society of Tulsa, Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, and Tulsa Interfaith Alliance (2008); the Dr. Ralph Dru Career and Professional “Dreamkeeper Award” presented by the Greater Tulsa Area Indian Commission (2011); and University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education Alumni Award (2013).