Native American traditions return to heal diabetes


ASHLAND and ODANAH, Wis.– While a good many elders on the Bad River Indian Reservation have diabetes, Bob Wilmer is not one of them. 

Part 3 of 3 articles.

“My bad cholesterol is low, my good cholesterol is high. My doctor keeps asking me my diet, so he can recommend it,” said Wilmer, the Bad River Band’s game warden. “I keep telling him, ‘I eat everything that’s supposed to be bad for you.’ I eat fat – I eat butter, eggs, whatever – and I’ve never had a problem.”

Although Wilmer buys a lot from the local Wal-Mart in Ashland, some of the food he eats  –  and the active role he plays in getting it through his physically demanding work – draw on deep Native traditions of self-sufficiency.

In the course of his active life, Wilmer does what a recent movement has been trying to do: fight the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in Indian Country through a return to traditional foods, exercise and public health education.

Staying Active

Genetics may also play a role in preventing disease for Wilmer, but he also spends his days on the move: chasing poachers, wrangling stray dogs, checking in on rare bird populations, and snowmobiling down deep-woods paths to ferret out non-tribal riders without the proper permits.

Wilmer and his friends harvest from the land such foods as maple syrup, venison, perch and wild rice. In the woods, there’s wild turkey, partridge, bear and rabbit. Local waters have plenty of walleye, pan fish, trout and other fish. And the reservation thrives with wintergreen, leeks, apples, juneberries and other plants to harvest.

It’s a return to eating those kinds of foods, and the more active lifestyle that comes with it, that is needed to save the Ojibwe people from diabetes, elder and Northland College Native American Studies professor Joe Rose says at the college’s spring powwow. He was raised in a traditionalist family, founded the campus powwow decades ago, and started the college’s Native American Museum.

“All the young kids, they sit in front of the TV,” he said. “We’re going to have to get back to some good food, and more wild game that’s not all shot up with antibiotics and growth hormones.

“Were going to have to get back to local foods,” he added, “and grow some of our own vegetables.”

Gardening Good “Medicine”

Becky LeMieux is standing on the dark stage in the gym of the Bad River Community Center. A series of grow lights shine down on tiny seedlings. The baby squash, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage and sage are destined to be part of community garden projects across the reservation.

Eagle Stories for Health

Seventeen Indian communities across the country are fighting diabetes with traditional foods, exercise and stories as part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) five-year grant program.

Dawn Satterfield of the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program said each of the communities is receiving $100,000 a year for their Traditional Foods projects. Much of this money, she said, came from the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, which will end in 2011 unless it is reauthorized by Congress.

Satterfield’s office received 70 project proposals during the grant’s last application period. But, she said, they only had enough money to fund 17. These include, among others, projects for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North and South Dakota, the Nooksack Indian Tribe of Washington and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota.

But native communities that aren’t benefiting from the grant program, such as the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, still have access to another powerful CDC resource: The Eagle Books

Several years ago, the CDC asked tribal leaders from all over the country what they thought was needed to beat diabetes. The leaders unanimously agreed that their children needed stories, which to that point had been absent, about how to live a healthy life in the face of convenience foods and widespread sedentary habits.

The Eagle Books, a four-part children’s series in which an eagle teaches a young boy and his friends how to be healthy, came out of these conversations. There is also a feature-length animated DVD in English, Chickasaw, Paiute, Shoshone and Spanish languages, as well as closed captioning in English. The program is also developing a middle-school version.

In Bad River alone more than 200 copies of the books have already reached the community, Melissa Geach of Bad River Heart Watch said.

To learn more about the CDC’s Eagle Books and Traditional Foods projects, visit the website ».

Once the plants are big enough, they’ll go into raised beds planned for the elders’ center, a plot at the community garden, or a family’s garden at home.

LeMieux, the tribe’s former nutrition educator, recalls when she was a kid, at least half her diet consisted of what her dad could harvest. After he brought home a box of fish, her mom filleted and processed it. LeMieux’s dad taught her how to spear fish, process deer and harvest wild rice. Today, she estimates that only a quarter of her diet comes from local food.

Recognizing the diabetes epidemic and operating from the premise that “food is medicine,” LeMieux helped form the Gitiganing Garden Restoration Project nearly a decade ago. Starting in 2003, she and Luis Salas, another community organizer, secured several years’ federal funding for a rotating crew of AmeriCorps volunteers.

These volunteers, most of whom stayed for a year, and committed community leaders built a public garden plot. By starting seeds and publicizing an annual plant giveaway, the group encouraged people to garden at the community site and at home.

Although much of the infrastructure, manpower and funding that nurtured the project is no longer available, LeMieux’s devotion to keeping these seedlings alive is the main glue holding this grassroots gardening effort together.

The involvement of community elders like Lemieux is essential in the fight against diabetes in Indian Country, said Dawn Satterfield, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Native Diabetes Wellness Program.

Even though Bad River’s gardening project isn’t funded by CDC’s Traditional Foods grant program, more than 200 copies of its Eagle Books have reached the community, said Melissa Geach of the Bad River Heart Watch program.

More recently, Geach said, the project’s staff has taken an active role in promoting gardening at Bad River. This spring, they put on a series of four gardening classes about soil selection, vegetable production, composting and planting fruit trees. More than a dozen enthusiastic community gardeners turned out for each class, she said.

The Fitness Prescription

Just feet away, in the center’s small fitness room built by Heart Watch, two of the morning’s Earth Day community clean-up volunteers keep moving on the elliptical machines, treadmills and weights. They are Robyn Garcia, 33, and Daniel Wiggins, 27. The couple has five young children.

As they talk about what brought them here, the sound of the Bad River Singers is building in the next room. The five young men are contributing their talents to the Earth Day feast, and their drumming and singing is starting to seep through the concrete walls and into where Garcia moves up and down on the elliptical machine.

Garcia, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, keeps trim and well toned, as does her boyfriend, Wiggins. A lot of people don’t realize you can control diabetes, she said. Wiggins does, she added, but his mom died from type 2 diabetes and lung cancer.

Wiggins has lost more than 50 pounds and now weighs in at a lean 178 — significantly cutting down his risk of getting type 2 diabetes. “That’s the reason I’m trying to stay in shape,” Wiggins said.

The pair comes to work out for almost an hour every weekday. Wiggins sprints on his machine, and Garcia pushes her arms out harder on hers. The Bad River Drummers grow louder; their wailing chants are now thundering through the fitness center walls. The sound of these young men participating in an ancient tradition mix seamlessly with another sound, one that may also prove key to sustaining future generations: the whir of exercise machines.

This article was conceived and produced as a project for New America Media’s Ethnic Elders News Fellowship, supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies.