“Feeding Ourselves” Connects Native American Health Disparities and Federal Policies

In 1940, diabetes among Native Americans was almost unknown. The disease began appearing in the 1950s and expanded until during the 1960s it became a common condition. Today, nearly every Native American is involved either personally with diabetes, or has family and friends with diabetes,

According to a new report released today, Diabetes has been called the new smallpox.

“Researchers point to dramatic changes in the traditional diet of Native Americans, the rise in sedentary lifestyles, poverty, loss of culture, trauma and other factors as contributing to this epidemic,” according to the report.

The Native Organizers Alliance (NOA), a project of the Alliance for a Just Society, contributed work and research to Feeding Ourselves: Food access, health disparities, and the pathways to healthy Native American communities.” The extensive report, released today, examines food access in Native American communities and health disparities.

The report analyzes the impacts of federal policies that forcibly separated Native people from their historical lands and traditional sources of food. Those policies are manifesting in Native American health disparities today.

“Separation from healthy foods has been one of the most pernicious health problems we endure,” according to the report.

More than 80 percent of Native American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Indian Health Clinic Reporting System. Four-year-old Native American children have twice the obesity of their white counterparts, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study.

The report found that most of tribal lands are in food deserts, areas that lack access to healthy food. It detailed the historical and economic factors that have broken down the Native American food system.”

In the report, Judith Le Blanc, national coordinator for the Native Organizers Alliance, of the Alliance for a Just Society, shares:

“With technical support, tribal governments, service entities and local organizers can build significant community support for basic policy changes. Public education framed by Native traditions can be created to foster an understanding of the long history of healthier environments captured in our histories. To achieve an all-around healthier environment that includes community communication, commitment and continuing access to decision makers, we need a resourced organizing infrastructure of local activists that has a role far beyond funding cycles and tribal and local elections.”

“Feeding Ourselves” was commissioned by the American Heart Association (AHA) and Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AHA.

The report is report’s authors include Crystal Echo Hawk of Echo Hawk Consulting; Janie Hipp, Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law; Wilson Pipestem, founder, Pipestem Law and Ietan Consulting

Alliance for a Just Society worked on the report through the Praxis Project’s Communities Creating Healthy Environments (CCHE) Program Indian Country technical assistance partner.