Diabetes-prevention grants have unexpected “side effects”: Better health goes hand in hand with economic development, community building, and more

Published in Indian Country Today in 2010. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Diabetes prevention may have been the focus of multi-year Centers for Disease Control grants, but additional positive changes have flowed from the work done by the tribal funding recipients. The grantees’ innovative projects — including gardens, farmers markets, gathering camps, storytelling sessions and traditional-food cooking classes — have gone beyond improving health in the most narrow sense of the word. The activities have had a ripple effect on many aspects of life in the 17 communities that received the funding. Here are a few of their stories. For more information on these efforts, go to www.cdc.gov/diabetes/projects/diabetes-wellness.htm. 

A Community Unites
Wrangell, Alaska — “Our traditional-foods project has transformed our Native community,” said Tammi Meissner, Tlingit, project assistant for the local CDC diabetes-prevention project. “Local native groups and organizations that functioned separately are working together for the first time. People are forming new friendships, sharing expertise, and developing mentoring relationships with the many kids involved in our activities.”

In addition to CDC money, hundreds of volunteer hours make the project possible, said Meissner, who is in year two of the five-year effort. “The entire community and its wealth of knowledge have made this happen.”

            The program, administered through the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), started with premises that were straightforward and supported by scientific research: Traditional foodstuffs from the land and water around you are healthier than processed foods and other store-bought items. Further, a wholesome diet prevents and controls diabetes, a devastating illness affecting Alaska Native and American Indian people at twice the rate of non-Hispanic whites, according to the US Department of Health.

 Meissner’s job was to help people in the city of Wrangell and the village of Kake get back in touch with the hunting and gathering skills needed to acquire healthy local foods sustainably. “Nowadays, people may not have the necessary equipment, such as a boat or crab pots, to do this. They may have lost some expertise or have a job that leaves them no time for such labor-intensive activities.”

At times, individuals have worried to Meissner that they won’t be able to acquire singlehandedly every component of a healthy diet. She reassures them: “I remind them that in the old days people specialized — in fishing, let’s say — and shared. We can do the same.”

            That’s exactly how it worked out. The hunting, fishing, and gathering camps the project sponsors throughout the year — for berries, salmon, moose, a fish called hooligan, and more — have meant food surpluses so substantial participants can put up supplies for the winter and still have enough left to barter for additional items for their pantries. The trading started locally and spread to encompass more communities, re-establishing old trade routes that hadn’t functioned in decades, according to project coordinator Martha Pearson, of SEARHC.

Meissner recalls the April day a boat called the Julia Kae sailed into Wrangell, laden with many thousands of pounds of herring eggs. “I put out the word that the captain, Steve Demmert, was willing to trade. A crowd showed up at the dock with hooligan, oysters, seaweed, pilot bread [a cracker-like Alaska staple], homemade jam, and much more they wanted to barter. Steve said he’d never seen a more giving community.”

            Word is spreading, and the Wrangell office is receiving calls from Native people around Alaska, asking to become part of the trading network. The office has also become a trusted information clearinghouse, where people can call about fish and game regulations, for example, or to find out how to track down what they need to know.

What Meissner calls an “explosion” of good will has drawn in non-Native people, too. “They’ve come to understand the cultural importance of things they see around them — for example, that our regalia is not a costume, but much more than that.”

In fulfilling its original goals, the SEARHC project is doing much more, said Dawn Satterfield, a health educator with the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program. “Community building and food security are wonderful bonuses.”

The project’s secret of success? Focus on children, Meissner said. “They are our future, and with them involved, everyone’s on the same page.”

Transforming Livelihoods And Lives
Fort Yates, North Dakota — Lack of money no longer has to mean bad diet and bad health on the Standing Rock Reservation. The ways the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program is breaking the link between poverty and illness are numerous: 

            The program’s CDC grant supports a reservation-wide gardens project that grew from 120 household plots last year to 150+ this year. Elders take children onto the prairie to learn gathering skills, along with Lakota language. Seed saving preserves crops that have proved their mettle in the harsh Northern Plains environment. Giveaways provide elders with fresh produce. Plant-medicine making supports traditional knowledge. And, finally, the weekly Fort Yates farmers market spurs the local economy by welcoming fruit and vegetable vendors, along with sellers of dried meat, wild edibles, baked goods, and arts and crafts.

The whole is more than the sum of the parts, though, according to gardens program coordinator Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota, shown above. “It’s a gestalt, with all elements united and inseparable. You can’t point to just the gardens, or just the farmers market, or what have you. It’s about a relationship to the land that our ancestors understood. Look at the old pictures. It’s etched on their faces.”

Health comes from reconnecting with this knowledge, according to Skye. This thought became clear to him while hiking and riding horseback around his home site on the western edge of the reservation. “I watched the land as it changed through the seasons. As I noticed what was sprouting, starting with the first spring crocuses, I saw how different the plants were from year to year. Last year, we were still harvesting timpsila in late June. This year, they’d gone to seed by then.” When you understand those things, a sense of scarcity and insecurity transforms into a feeling of abundance and control, he said.

The changes are practical as well as theoretical. As the Standing Rock gardens program burgeoned — offering food security, along with a small income for those who want to sell their surplus — Skye saw its power to change livelihoods and lives. “This is a rugged land, but we’re rugged people. By participating in this program, we’ve proved you can enhance your life or even support yourself here by gardening, gathering, hunting, fishing, and marketing what you produce. You won’t get rich doing this, but you can live well.”

Ways to extend the program are underway. Skye has produced designs for a large demonstration plots that could be used as models for community gardens in districts around the reservation. Last year, he planted a one-acre plot in a floodplain near his home, while this year, his front yard has a circular garden with a 50-foot diameter and a sprinkler in the center. “I’ve got sunflowers in the middle; corn, beans, and squash in the next ring; and potatoes around the outside. Our compost fertilizes it, and it’s all really working — its own little ecosystem — with the squash shading out weeds, and everything growing well.”

He was pleased with the circle garden, the CDC project and the possibilities they both revealed. “We already have everything we need.”

Linking Health And Pride
“That’s it! Enough!” Yvonne Bickerstaff, Santee Sioux Nation, didn’t want to hear any more about the oppression of her people. “This has been pounded into my head my whole life. I want to go above and beyond it and emphasize our proud culture.”

            Bickerstaff runs the tribe’s WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program, and when her agency recently took on the Santees’ CDC diabetes grant, she saw the opportunity to do just that. “At WIC, we’re big on education, so that’s a part of each of the five segments of the funding.”

            Bickerstaff’s favorite portion of the project is the Young Braves Program, run by the tribe’s chief executive officer, Butch Denny, Santee Sioux Nation, and Keith Campbell. “They take up to 13 kids on campouts in wilderness areas. They do take along food, but the kids pick wild turnips and wild onions to supplement the provisions. They also learn about the old ways, making fire from scratch and developing other traditional skills. Everyone has a great time, and the kids love it.”

           She recalls a photo of one of the excursions, showing CDC staffer Larry Alonso, who was on a site visit, horsing around in a river with a bunch of kids. “You know what Larry told me? What you don’t see the picture is what’s important. You don’t see kids staring at a computer or TV or eating processed snack foods.”

            A second portion of the funding goes to buy buffalo meat that’s distributed to families, with preference given to those with diabetic members. In the process, the families see a registered dietician, who provides nutrition information and suggestions for cooking the meat. Preparing buffalo is not obvious if you’re used to fat-marbled beef, according to Bickerstaff. “When my mother cooks buffalo, it’s delicious, but when I tried, I realized a person might need instruction.”

The animals are purchased from the tribal herd, which has the added benefit of keeping the money flowing around the Santee economy, instead of sending it out of the community immediately, as would occur if WIC bought from an outside supplier. This decision also means receiving the meat on Nature’s timetable, as animals are harvested only when they’re ready, said Bickerstaff. “You don’t harvest a cow that’s about to calve, for example. We can’t put in an order and expect immediate delivery every time. And that’s fine.”

Working with the tribe’s existing diabetes program means more educational activities. “We are developing additional booths for the tribal hall’s lobby. The displays will explain healthy food choices, portion control, exercise, and more.”

A fourth arm of the grant supports household gardens, which have proven easier to handle than larger community plots.

The fifth effort is an upcoming culture day, with traditional games and activities, heritage food and more. When asked if it would be annual, Bickerstaff was emphatic. “It’s going to be huge, so it better be!”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; SEARHC photos courtesy the organization; photo of Skye c. Woodard.

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