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Water, anyone?

PORTLAND, Ore. - The crystal-clear drink that comes straight from Mother
Earth could be described like a fine wine, with notes of evergreen and
fruity accents of dried huckleberries. Or, on another occasion from a
different source, in terms of a slightly sweet draught with crisp,
refreshing hints of spice.

But water has been upstaged, drowned out by corporations hawking sweet
fizzy water in aluminum cans. The name of the Pacific Northwest elder who
raised the question was lost in the conversation, but the gist of her
comment was: What's happened to us? Water comes first at our feasts still,
but it's become a passing ceremonial gesture on route to the real thing -
soda pop.

Blackfoot/Gros Venture writer James Welch agrees. "There are too many oil
companies, lumber companies, soft drink companies looking to exploit the
tribes. We will introduce them to the luxuries of civilization," Welch
wrote. "Then we will try to figure out why they were so happy back then,
and so unhappy now."

Soft drink companies know we're out here, and they know in the middle of a
stressful day we'll easily take a little comfort from something sweet and
bubbly. That we'll saunter on over to the nearest vending machine, plunk
our money down, and wait happily while a cold can of soda pop rattles down
the chute into our hands. Indeed, the pleasure would almost be innocent
were it not for the fallout - fallout that the federal government has
finally admitted in its 2005 dietary guidelines.

Moderating soft drink consumption, the guidelines ventured after years of
refusing to approach the issue, could help control the obesity that's
sweeping the nation. More nutritionally-sound choices, government pundits
said, will go far in reducing calories and building strong bodies.

Obesity, diabetes, tooth decay from soda pop. None of that's news to Sarah
Aspenland, a member of the Taos tribe and a nutrition technician for the
Santa Fe Service Unit of the U.S. Indian Health Service.

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"During World War II people were drafted into the military service, where
they were introduced to different foods. Families who had sons and
daughters in the military received monthly allotments from the War
Department: $45 - $50 a month per son or daughter," said Aspenland. "With
the extra money from these allotments and income from new defense jobs,
people began buying more food than they grew. Because of the extra money,
foods once eaten only at feast time were now bought more often, for example
soda pop, sweet rolls, cookies and candy."

Aspenland spelled it out: "Before the war, we were very active, lean and
fit. After the war, some people had cars or trucks and were not walking to
town anymore. They were riding in cars."

Felipe Molina, a Tohono O'odham and coordinator of Desert Foods for
Diabetes, sees the same problem in southern Arizona tribes as Aspenland
does in northern New Mexico. "What we're doing now is going into the
schools to help the young kids learn about traditional foods and how to
help themselves," Molina said. "The other day I went to New Pascua near
Tucson and I saw very heavy kids, which I've never seen before. It's our
diet! We're very into soda pop and french fries."

Teens are especially vulnerable, and along with empty calories in soda pop,
they also get caffeine. From 55.5 milligrams in Mountain Dew to 22
milligrams in Barq's Root Beer, the caffeine in soft drinks not only rob
the bones of calcium and magnesium, they cause hyperactivity - a problem
that often is treated with drugs instead of simply curtailing the soda pop.
More, having vending machines on school campuses only makes it harder for
teens to make good choices. After all, once we've tasted the sparkling
sugary liquid, water seems a poor cousin by comparison and a drinking
fountain becomes an afterthought.

Many, including Lorraine Valdez, R.N., C.D.E., from the Pueblo of Isleta
and Laguna tribes, sees the consumption of soda as a generational problem.
"The elder grandparents want to drink their atole (blue cornmeal drink) and
eat traditional foods. But mom and dad work outside the home all day and
scramble to get the evening meal on the table," Valdez said. "Today our
children want to eat the fried chicken, soda pop, and other high-fat,
high-sugar foods all the other kids eat."

From the 1940s to the 1990s, U.S. consumption of soda pop increased nine
times, the same period in which diabetes in Indian country increased at
rates 50 times the national average. And by the late 1990s, Americans spent
over $54 billion to buy 14 billion gallons of soft drinks.

Everyone's hands, it seems, are permanently curled around soda pop cans.
But before ossification sets completely in, we still have a chance and a
choice. Perhaps it's time to give nature's elixir a second chance: time to
take Mother Earth up on her bargain and dip into some cool, clear water.