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Wilkins: A warrior walks on: The dwindling of Native America

One of my dearest friends walked on recently. His name was David Marshall. He was only 56 years old. David was not widely known outside of his Cherokee and Creek homelands in northeastern Oklahoma, although he deserved greater recognition. He was, after all, the first Native person to earn a master's degree in speech pathology and audiology from the University of Arizona in 1982, and he dedicated his long and distinguished public health service career, most of it spent at Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, Okla., helping Native citizens hear better. David was the best and most empathetic audiologist a patient could have.

Although he never garnered, and certainly never sought, national attention, he was a deeply loved and respected man throughout the two nations of which he was a part. The hundreds of people who attended his funeral services were a testament to his immense popularity and beloved character. It is the David Marshalls of the Indian world that provide the spiritual vitality our nations still wield, as well as the moral compass that still sometimes distinguishes us from those who arrived later on our shores.

Simply put, David was one of the finest gentlemen I've ever known. In our 26-year relationship, I never once heard him besmirch another person or draw unwarranted or even warranted attention to himself. When he wasn't fitting people with hearing aids, he was actively engaged in local educational affairs, church life and sports - either as a coach, undaunted cheerleader or participant - until his health began to deteriorate.

Although we lived far apart for the past two decades, we had regular conversations about all the above and, of course, about Indian politics. We constantly shared our thoughts and bounced ideas off one another about what we thought needed to take place in Indian country to move things forward in good and sustainable ways - both at the national (indigenous and U.S.) level, and tribal-specific levels.

We frequently addressed topics like how we, as Native peoples, define ourselves, when so much has changed from the time of our ancestors. We debated topics related to tribal enrollment and the current surge of banishments and disenrollments, including the overheated topic of the freedmen in the Cherokee Nation - he supported his nation's right to decide on who belonged to the nation; I raised questions about the intergovernmental problems this decision was sparking.

We pondered the impact of gaming revenues on our nations' spiritual and cultural identities, and how these funds were affecting intragovernmental affairs and intergovernmental relations.

We often discussed what might be done to bridge the political, economic and cultural gaps between Western tribal nations and Eastern-based nations, between treaty-based tribes and those without, between federally recognized tribes and non-recognized communities. We frequently discussed the history and ongoing force of Christianity in Indian country, and how that religion had connected with Native nations and affected their pre-existing traditional understandings about life, death and the pursuit of maturity.

And we had lengthy conversations about the severe physical, mental, emotional and dietary problems that have been pervasive throughout Indian country since our sustained interactions with Europeans and Euro-Americans - alcoholism, teenage suicide, teenage pregnancies, intratribal violence and, in recent years, the frightening toll that diabetes is having on Native peoples. David's body, in fact, had been ravaged by diabetes and it contributed mightily to his early passing.

As a health professional himself, David was keenly aware of the horrific impact diabetes was having not only on him, but on members of his immediate family and Native people in general. During our many conversations about this disease, we wondered why, after all the years of compelling research showing the cause and effect relationship between the disease and dietary choices we make, our peoples still seemed unable to make the necessary changes required to live healthier lives. And this in the face of still-available knowledge that our ancestors were far healthier than we are today and ate foods and drank fluids that directly contributed to their healthful states.

Of course, tribal governments have begun a multitude of diabetes-related programs, and some federal agencies are addressing this dreaded disease as well. But he and I noticed in our travels locally and throughout Indian country that far too many Native persons continued to ingest unhealthy foodstuffs that have created the diabetes epidemic.

Is it because we cannot afford to eat and drink more appropriately? Is it because we are embedded in a colonized mindset that has not yet figured out what needs to occur in order to free our minds and bodies of those negative attitudes, awful food sources and other things that keep us in a destabilized and terribly unhealthy status? Is it because we remain susceptible to corporate America and the mass media's assaults on our five senses? Or is it because much of our educational system indoctrinates and teaches conformity and gullibility, rather than independent thought-making and moral courage?

David and I were never able to satisfactorily answer this critical question: Why can't we stop destroying ourselves? But it is a question we must ask even more emphatically, lest we continue to surrender more of our people to this dreaded disease.

I desperately want to believe that we have the internal individual and collective sovereign power to change our lifestyles and live healthier lives. Our ancestors did so for thousands of years. Let us all look to the natural species - plants and animals - that inhabit our lands, rivers and skies for guidance. Of course, some of those species have been polluted and cannot be relied upon. Be that as it may, there is still knowledge, and ceremonies, values and thoughts, available to all of our nations that can guide us to make better choices about what we put in our bodies and in our minds.

In following these original instructions, we will be honoring those who've walked on before us and living longer lives that will serve as examples for those just joining us.

David A. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor of American Indian studies, political science, law and American studies at the University of Minnesota.