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Dr. Tonemah stresses health as ‘our first sovereignty’

HOLLYWOOD — Dr. Darryl Tonemah, a health phycologist and musician of Kiowa, Comanche, and Tuscarora decent, travels to reservations across the country to promote health and wellness, but rather than straight out telling people how to manage their health, he pitches the idea that “health should be our first sovereignty.”

“I recognize that without our health every other sovereignty doesn’t occur,” Dr. Tonemah said to a handful of Tribal members Feb. 19 at the Tribe’s health complex in Hollywood. “Because if I’m not healthy then I don’t have financial sovereignty because I can’t work. If I’m not healthy I don’t have political sovereignty because I can’t play with the political things. So health is my No. 1 sovereignty. Everything else trickles down out of that.”

Tonemah, who was born on the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County, New York, explains the definition of sovereignty – according to Wikipedia – as “the full right and power of a governing body to govern itself without any interference from outside sources.” And I thought ‘well how does that apply to health?’” Tonemah said. “If I have health sovereignty then I have the ability to make choices in my health. I don’t have an outside provider, I don’t have a machine, I don’t have medications making health choices for me, and so every day I do something to claim my sovereignty.”

Tonemah stressed that the only person who has the most influence on your health is you. Whether that message comes from Tonemah or another doctor or fitness trainer, the bottom line is change has to start with the person and what is he or she willing to change.


Change – as Tonemah explained – does not necessarily mean to stop everything you eat and drink, but rather find your “negotiables” which can be something small such as substituting green tea for coffee, or increasing physical activity to burn calories gained from unhealthy items.

While working through the negotiables people may get the impression that switching from regular soda to diet soda can cut back on calorie intake, but research indicates diet drinks have their drawbacks, too. A recent study by the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association found that artificially sweetened drinks were linked to an increased risk of clot-based strokes and heart attacks. Other research also suggests that diet drinks were shown to have a link to dementia, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.

“The research that I find most interesting about that is that people actually gain weight when they drink diet drinks,” Tonemah said. “They put things in there that affect your satiety; your inability to feel full, so actually drinking diet drinks can make you feel hungrier which is ironic.”

A suggestion for compensating sugar is to opt for other sweeteners or flavors like mint and cinnamon, both are also said to help suppress appetite.

Why change?

Research provides further proof about the toll poor eating habits has had on Native communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that Native Americans are more likely to get diabetes than any other U.S. racial group, and they have also reported that obesity was high among Native children.

Obesity can lead to all sorts of health problems. Kidney failure, for example, can force a patient to rely on a dialysis machine to remove toxins from the blood because their kidneys can no longer perform that basic function. According to the National Kidney Foundation, life expectancy on dialysis is five to 10 years, although, the foundation states that many patients have lived 20 or even 30 years on dialysis.

If you are planning to make a change in your health, but are not quite sure how to go about it, the Tribe has many resources that are available, including Seminole Integrative Health (formerly known as Allied Health).

Dr. Darryl Tonemah, standing at right, leads a health seminar in Hollywood on Feb. 19.
(Photo Derrick Tiger)

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