Healing Diabetes at North America’s Largest Powwow
Staff, volunteers, and friends at the Annual Gathering of Nations
The Physicians Committee attended the 31st Annual Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, N.M., this April to spread the message of lifesaving nutrition. A team of 14 Physicians Committee staff members and volunteers handed out nearly 10,000 DVDs featuring the new documentary The Power to Heal Diabetes: Food for Life in Indian Country.
Under the marketplace tent between seemingly impromptu dances and swirls of bright regalia—including a sacred ceremonial dance by masked Apache Crown Dancers—attendees learned how ancestral diet habits can help bring their community back to good health.
“Distributing our DVD at the Gathering of Nations was a huge success,” says Physicians Committee’s Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E. “The event draws athletes from tribal nations who compete in strenuous dance and drumming competitions, and health is of concern to many attendees.”
Attendees also received booklets with recipes, including a recipe for Camp Fire Kabobs by the founder of the Gathering of Nations, Melonie Mathews, who is the author of a vegetarian cookbook.
The Cause of the Growing Epidemic
Diabetes was not always common among Native Americans. But as traditional diets have been lost, disease rates have skyrocketed. Spam and processed cheese are commonplace in markets, and fast-food restaurants like Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell now line the Navajo Nation reservation’s border in Window Rock, Ariz.
This dietary shift is a consequence of the conquest and colonization of America by Europeans. Entire ecosystems were destroyed, including Native agricultural systems. In place of these critical resources, the United States government began dumping agricultural surplus products like cheese, lard, and sugar on Native Americans.
The Pima tribe illustrates the impact of dietary changes. In 19th-century Arizona, the Pima’s water supply was diverted away, effectively destroying the tribe’s ability to raise crops. Forced to subsist on government commodities, the tribe experienced unprecedented rates of obesity and diabetes. But Pimas living south of the Mexican-American border did not experience these dietary changes—or these health problems. A 1994 study in Diabetes Care reported that diabetes is rarer in a Pima community in rural Mexico that maintained a traditional diet.
Are Researchers Failing Diabetes Patients?
Because type 2 diabetes is largely a diet-related disease, one might expect that government research focuses on testing new ways to help people improve their diets. However, a surprisingly large amount of research resources go to “modeling” diabetes in animals, ultimately aiming to generate new diabetes drugs.
Every year, approximately 72,000 animals are used in about 1,400 government-funded experiments on diabetes, with an annual price tag of $560 million. In addition to obvious ethical problems, animal tests often fail to show the potential dangers that new drug compounds may pose to human patients.
That is why Physicians Committee scientists are investigating the scientific reasons for the very poor correlation between animal experiments and human results. They have found that the rodent models commonly used for diabetes research do not accurately mimic human diabetes, and, through publications and presentations, they are pushing for a switch from animal methods to human-based research methods that can accurately predict human responses to treatments.