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What do you mean diabetes?

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Mitchell Bush, Onondaga/Mohawk, was diagnosed with diabetes in 1986 but wasn’t told by his doctor until five years later. He lives just outside of Richmond and is extremely active in the Virginia Native community, attending and participating in numerous pow wows throughout the year, as well as with the Virginia Council of Indians.

His mother lost both her legs from diabetes, and he knows all too well the dangers Native people face with this disease.

Indian Country Today sat down with Bush to learn more about living with Type 2 diabetes in today’s Native culture.

Indian Country Today: Can you tell us something about yourself, Mr. Bush?

Mitchell Bush: I am Onondaga and Mohawk – I am enrolled as both. My father is Mohawk from Akwesasne on the Canadian side.

ICT: At what point in your life did you realize you might have diabetes?

Bush: In 1987, I had had a minor heart attack. I was under a doctor’s care. In my last meeting with him in 1991 as I was walking out, he asked, “What are you doing about your diabetes?” I said, “What do you mean, diabetes?” I began taking a pill because I was not that bad then. I took the pill until October 2006.

I had a major heart attack and “died” on Oct. 5, 2006, and my organs shut down; they had to get them restarted again [and] apparently that’s something that triggers full-blown diabetes. I’ve been taking insulin from then until now.

ICT: Did having diabetes change your lifestyle at all?

Bush: I had to change my lifestyle a great deal getting out of the hospital. I began to pay more attention to my sugar level. They told me if I could keep my sugar down, I may forego my need for insulin and be able to go back to the pill. I’ve been watching my sugar level the best that I can, and I’ve been learning in the meantime what foods that I ate that contained a lot of sugar. I’m a big spaghetti fan, and the sauce that you put on spaghetti has a lot of sugar.

So now, I still eat spaghetti, but I have a lot less sauce on it. When I order it in a restaurant, I ask for the sauce on the side; that way, I can control how much goes on to it. I don’t eat meatballs that often. Maybe once every 10 days with dinner. Of course, that’s another issue with my doctor; he’s concerned about my cholesterol.

ICT: Do you manage to get exercise?

Bush: Unfortunately, I also have arthritis, so I’m not too nimble. More recently, I have been doing a lot of traveling to pow wows and I man a booth all weekend, so I’m fairly active. I tell my doctor, “If you want to know if I’m doing jumping jacks, the answer is no. But I am very active.”

ICT: How do you feel diabetes has affected you?

Bush: It’s made me more alert to sugar. Fortunately I quit drinking about 10 or 12 years ago, so I don’t get sugar that way. This has all been a part of becoming aware of what is not good for you. I call alcohol and diabetes the twin devils that bother Native Americans. I say this because the Native American body systems are not able to properly absorb sugar.

ICT: Our Native ancestors didn’t have access to processed sugar that we do today.

Bush: That’s right. And now, in today’s world, a lot of Native people don’t have a lot of money. Mothers are fixing their kids foods with macaroni in it. Macaroni isn’t all that good for you.

ICT: Whole wheat pasta is a whole lot better for you than processed white pasta.

Bush: Right. The one funny thing that I should be watching, but I don’t eat that often, is frybread. Frybread is bad for you. But it’s good, so I have frybread maybe once or twice a month. Some of the Indian women who make frybread are becoming aware of the health benefits of whole wheat frybread. They are experimenting on different ways of getting away from white flour.

My sister lives on the Onondaga reservation, and my family up there still gathers wild plants out in the woods that our people have eaten for forever. We still gather leeks, cowslips and wild onions. These are the foods that we had eaten before we got the white man’s white flour and sugar.

ICT: What would you suggest to someone who finds out they have diabetes?

Bush: You can tell somebody something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to absorb it. There are numerous books out there that tell people with diabetes what they can eat. They need to start familiarizing themselves with cookbooks. I stay away from cereals that have sugar added, like Froot Loops. I try to stay more with the bran cereals. You just need to have an awareness of what you’re eating.

I’ve also learned with diabetes that you can have the opposite of a sugar high. When I have low blood sugar, I’ve also learned that you can have things like a glass of orange juice to bring your blood sugar back to normal.

Out of the more than 20 million adults and children with diabetes in America, one out of three does not know it. 54 million people have pre-diabetes.

Bush’s story is not uncommon; many American Indians today suffer from the effects of Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is different from Type 1 in that Type 2 is brought on by environmental influences such as poor diet and lack of exercise.

But Natives today are becoming more empowered and are fighting the disease with better diet, more exercise and education. Programs are constantly being created to assist them with diabetes-related health issues, and more Native people are taking advantage of these programs.