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Diabetes No. 1 health problem among Native Americans

Unfortunately, diabetes is not a foreign word to the Seminole Tribe of Florida – or to any Tribe, for that matter. Diabetes is the No. 1 health issue plaguing Native Americans across the nation.

On average, Indians are twice as likely to die from diabetes complications as non-Indians, according to the National Institutes of Health. The numbers continue to skyrocket across Indian Country as obesity and high blood pressure – diabetes contributors – become more prevalent in today’s society.

The fast-paced hustle and bustle of today’s society and the American diet filled with processed and junk foods adversely affect Natives’ health.

Tribes across the nation are looking for solutions. The Tohono O’odham Indian Nation in south central Arizona, for example, is returning to old Tribal ways to help the adults on the Tohono O’odham Reservation who have Type 2 diabetes. They hope to reintroduce their healthy, native foods – which include tepary beans, cholla buds, prickly pear cactus, saguaro fruit, squash and corn – into their schools and restaurants while adding a contemporary spin. They also educate the Tribe about those foods’ nutritional benefits.

The Seminole Tribe has tried a similar approach to fighting diabetes through education and prevention.

The Tribe’s Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School planted a traditional garden last school year where the students grew fruits and vegetables native to their people. After harvesting the crops, the school used the produce in students’ lunches.

Jade Braswell, Culture teacher at the Charter School, said it was a way for the students to learn about how their ancestors survived.

The Seminole Health Department has also taken a huge initiative to educate Tribal members on healthy eating. They have conducted cooking classes, health fairs, nutritional classes and more to help teach the Seminole Tribe how small adjustments to diet and lifestyle can make a large change in the outcome of their future.

Last year, Seminole Tribe nutritionist Valari Fauntleroy said during one of her healthy cooking classes, “There is a relationship between the diet, excessive weight gain and the onset of diabetes, as well as sedentary lifestyle. And so, we really want to attack that with encouraging people to make better food choices, keeping their weight down, lose weight if they need to and to be a little more physically active.”

The Seminole Tribe and Seminole Health Department have created lots of opportunities for Tribal members to become and stay physically active.

The major event of the year, Rez Rally, was started to raise awareness against the prominent disease. What began as a simple 5K (3.1-mile) race has grown into a large-scale cultural event. Not only does it bring out friendly competition among reservations, but it also unites the entire Tribe.

The Health Department also created Seminole Pathways, a weekly walking program held across reservations, to keep everyone active. This past year, the department added an educational element to it by hosting short nutrition classes before walks. In the classes, health educators teach Tribal members about food components such as sodium, sugar and fat – all things that can lead to diabetes when consumed in quantities higher than recommended.

Since the Seminole Tribe is not alone in their fight against diabetes, learning how other Tribes attempt to combat the disease could help.

“Really, what I’m trying to get them to see is that you can still make good, nutritious food that is quick and easy but is full of the fruits and the vegetables and all those wonderful antioxidants and all those wonderful things that we need in order to stay healthy,” Fauntleroy said. “It is never too late to change your diet; it is never too late to make those lifestyle changes; and if you are not successful the first time, dust yourself off and start all over again.”

As Brighton Tribal Council Rep. Andrew J. Bowers Jr. always says when speaking about diabetes, “If you don’t have it, prevent it; if you do, [manage] it.”

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