It has been apparent for well over a decade that when indigenous peoples
shift from their traditional diet to a "modern" highly refined carbohydrate
diet they become exposed to a range of degenerative diseases. The most
pervasive is diabetes mellitus.
This disease is epidemic among all indigenous peoples in North America (and
many other parts of the world) and seems especially destructive among
desert populations. A population which is introduced to a radical food - a
food that either does not appear in nature or is probably not intended for
human consumption - can require long periods of exposure before becoming
physically adapted to it. No one knows for certain how long this might
take, but it is clear that not enough time has passed to render these foods
safe for indigenous consumption.
This is the case throughout indigenous America. In Mexico, some 3.8 million
suffer from the disease. A range of groups such as Native Seed Search
(which has a group, Desert Foods for Diabetes) and Tohono O'odham Community
Action have mobilized to promote nutrition education among the people.
The "cure" for the malady has been with them all along. It lies in their
own traditional foods which include, for desert people, such traditional
favorites as cacti and prickly pear and an impressive list of foods
gathered from the desert.
Diabetes is so prevalent in some communities that up to 65 percent of the
adult population has it. Given that a pathway to health is known, one might
expect it would be easy to make changes that could reverse the unhealthy
trend, but the problem can be daunting. Of the most powerful garden
products, tepary beans are known to provide dramatic results. People who
include such high-fiber beans have been known to reverse their symptoms,
but knowing what to do isn't the same as being able to do it. Young people,
raised on a diet of fast-food restaurants, complain they don't like tepary
(or any other) beans.
This situation provides a problem familiar to anthropologists. How do you
get people to change their food habits? No one knows, but one thing is
certain: it's not easy to change people's eating patterns. The list of
related health issues is daunting: circulatory ailments, stroke, kidney
failure, obesity and so forth. The preferred lifestyle changes that would
help reverse the trends are predictable: traditional foods, increased
exercise and avoidance of harmful foods and habits.
Traditional foods have qualities that are somewhat rare in a contemporary
grocery store. All foods that are gathered from the natural world, such as
cacti and wild berries, are what have been designated "slow foods." They
have not been cultivated. Cultivated foods rely on human activity to
protect them from enemies such as weeds and even drought. They reward the
agriculturalist with high yields, but they differ from their wild
One way in which they are different is they are generally easier to digest
and to cook. For people who are in a hurry this seems to be a good thing,
but for people who are sensitive to rapidly absorbed carbohydrates, they
produce a higher level of blood sugar than did the wild foods. As a rule,
the more a plant is hybridized, and the more its fruit is refined by
machinery or chemistry, the more rapidly its carbohydrates are likely to be
absorbed in the bloodstream. Some indigenous peoples have survived on the
wild foods growing in their homelands for centuries. Those foods once saved
them from hunger. Today they can help save them from degenerative diseases.
I once heard that culture is what one does without thinking about it. This
was in regard to the foods people eat as well as the customs they follow.
In the days before the epidemic Indian people didn't need to think about
what they needed to do. It was a given that people would get exercise
because there wasn't much choice. There were no cars and, in most cases,
few horses, so unless one was going to just lie around, they had to walk.
And since no one was raising food for them and food stamps were unknown,
people who wanted to eat had to do something: hunt, fish, garden - all good
A healthy diet was pretty easy to come by, as well. Indeed, there were few
alternatives to healthy foods. If you wanted to eat junk food, you were out
In the contemporary world, doing things without thinking about them is not
working out. This is true of all people because the same issues are
impacting all populations worldwide. We are seeing an unprecedented growth
of the same diseases even among affluent suburban populations. The antidote
may require some organizing.
The first step is nutrition education, but simply telling people about the
problem is not enough. Something like a mini cultural revolution needs to
happen along the line of the Red Road or the Weight Watchers culture.
People are going to need alternatives to unhealthy diets and lifestyles,
and they will need to support one another and share ideas and, in this
They need to share experiences about which foods available are "slow foods"
or like slow foods. They are mostly found in the fresh fruits and
vegetables section, but people can't live on fruits and vegetables alone.
OK, they can, but they won't. They want variety and things that are treats
and comforting and all the things that the dangerous foods can be.
It would help if people could organize themselves into support groups to
help each other. This is actually consistent with indigenous cultures that
often created "societies" of people who committed to helping one another.
In this case, the help might come in the form of shared recipes and
information about how some foods are beneficial and others are dangerous.
Regular meetings could offer information about the traditional culture, and
provide information about sourcing traditional slow foods. There might even
be a way to share success stories.
Such a movement should not only be open to and focused on children and
young adults. Exercise is important, food is important, self-esteem and a
long list of things are important; and sharing a path toward healing is the
most important of all. The ancient Indians knew that, and contemporary
Indians need to learn it and practice it. There can be a way to cultural as
well as physical health.
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is associate
professor of American Studies and director of Indigenous Studies at the
State University of New York at Buffalo.