CDC diabetes-prevention grantees hold biannual meeting: Attendees share challenges and successes

Published by Indian Country Today in 2010. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....
“The CDC diabetes grants allow flexibility, and that’s why they work so well,” said Martha Pearson, project coordinator of the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC). The nonprofit fights diabetes with food-gathering camps and other activities in remote Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimpshian communities. It is one of 17 that received funding through 2013 via the Native Diabetes Wellness Program of the Centers for Disease Control. The groups, shown on the map above, met in Oklahoma in June for their biannual meeting. 

“We told the CDC we’d hold camps about every 6 weeks to acquire wild foods such as seaweed, salmon, and moose,” Pearson explained. “We’re dependent on nature’s schedule, though, so we couldn’t provide exact dates, and they were OK with it.” 

For the Ramah Navajo School Board’s garden project, the challenge has been finding seeds that will thrive in their high-desert New Mexico homeland, said coordinator Randy Chatto, Ramah Band of Navajo. “Seeds that work in other parts of the country don’t have the root structure and other characteristics that let them survive in an area of such low rainfall.” As a result, the group can’t simply order from a mainstream catalog. “Instead, we’ve sought out families that are still dryland farming, explained what we’re doing, and requested that they provide appropriate seeds. Most of our focus has been on our traditional produce, including corn, beans, Navajo Hubbard squash, melons, and chiles.”

            It’s all about the communities, said Larry Alonso, Health Education Specialist with the CDC. “We’re hearing from grantees about incredible mobilization of the people, elders and youth working together, traditions being supported. These things unravel diabetes.”

            For most recipients, this is the second year of a five-year program. However, Healthy Traditions Project, an agency of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, in Oregon, has just joined the group, said coordinator and tribal member Sharla Robinson. “We’re meeting to determine what people want, consulting elders, looking for heirloom seeds, working with local native-plant nurseries, and, even though this is technically our initial planning year, already doing some gardening.”

            The projects are predisposed to success because they’re not superimposed, but rather arise from local, culturally relevant needs, according to Alonso. An issue for Robinson’s community is the separation of elders and children, she said. Kids have a lot of after-school activities, and extended families tend to see each other intermittently, rather than on a daily basis. As a result, tribal members want to create ongoing opportunities to get together and gather items including berries, seeds, and mussels.

            The grant activities support language learning, according to Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota and gardens coordinator Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program, in North and South Dakota. “Everything we do through our grant has a Lakota name and provides a natural way for elders to teach the children our language. Everything we do also has a season, which is represented in the language. The Moon When The Ponies Get Fat, which begins in what we call June in English, was historically an important moment — the point in the year when the horses became strong enough to hunt and move camp. It also signals that it’ll soon be time to harvest prairie turnips, a popular food and an activity our youth really enjoy.”

             Harvesting wild foods and gardening don’t just provide wholesome meals, the grantees agreed. They also provide healthy exercise, another component of diabetes prevention. Processing meat is another workout, added Pearson: “It takes strength to butcher a moose!”

            Economic development has been a welcome outcome of the CDC project. The Alaska collecting camps have generated so much food, participants have been able to sell and barter goods and to reestablish old trade routes that hadn’t functioned for decades. The farmers market in Fort Yates, North Dakota, which was a financial boon for Standing Rock producers in 2009, its inaugural year, will reopen as soon as the 2010 harvest starts rolling in, reported Skye.  

            Meeting attendees presented reports on their projects and participated in training sessions. At a workshop in digital editing, led by Pearson, they produced short movies. “There are so many possibilities when you use computer programs like Macintosh iMovie or Windows Movie Maker,” Pearson said. “You can record storytelling sessions, personal experiences, elders talking about culture, and much more. Once you’ve got the session down, you can share it or not.” Generally, the necessary programs come with a computer or can be downloaded free, she said.

“I based my movie on what’s going on in my community,” said Chatto. “It was a powerful experience, and I felt I could pour my heart and soul into it.”

“We’re rekindling our cultures and reviving our communities,” said Robinson. Skye concurred, “We’ve lit a fire, and it’s burning bright.”

For more on CDC diabetes programs and the 17 grantees, go to

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos courtesy Native Diabetes Wellness Program of the CDC.

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