TOWAOC – From Cortez to Shiprock, N.M., Durango to Monticello, Utah, Native Americans sit in hospitals and health centers receiving kidney dialysis at a higher rate than non-Indians.
That is the uncomfortable truth of ignoring the diabetes epidemic the Ute Mountain Tribe is battling every day, said Rita King, manager of the tribe’s Diabetes Prevention Program. The Utes and Navajos recently hosted a two-day education conference about diabetes in Towaoc.
“It has been frustrating getting those at risk and those with the disease to change their ways,” King says. “The disease is reversible. Our people are aware of the problem, so we have done a good job there. But it is the action of individuals to take responsibility for their health, that is much tougher.”
Currently, 247 Ute Mountain tribal members have either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, representing 11 percent of the 2,100-member tribe. What is alarming is that 10- and 11-year-olds are being diagnosed with prediabetic conditions, King said.
“I’d call it a crisis,” she said. “We don’t beat around the bush, telling the kids dialysis, chronic sickness or an early death is where you will end up if you ignore nutrition and exercise. But a lot of our people are still in denial.”
Charlene Begay, coordinator for Diabetes Awareness for the Navajo tribe estimates 20 percent – or 60,000 – of the 300,000 population have the disease.
“Natives are predisposed to the disease because they do not have that history and tolerance to processed, sugary and fatty foods like European stock has,” she said. “Going back to our native diet is great, but it does not resonate with kids. Getting them active and eating well at an early age is our goal.”
The Ute tribe pulls out all the stops with kids. Prevention education, scare tactics, nutrition, label-reading training, portion control, exercise and physiology are all topics constantly drilled into the heads of the younger generation, said Radona Tom, events coordinator for the diabetic program.
“We do all we can. We show them the awful prop of what fat looks like in your body,” she says. “Then we say this is what will happen if you keep playing video games, have them put on progressively heavier fat jackets and then do calisthenics. The key is to keep up the message year to year, each generation. It takes time.”
But it pays off. The message got through to Tom.
“I lost 100 pounds and cured myself,” she said.
Just having fun with kids is an effective approach. Every Wednesday afternoon, child care providers host kickball, basketball and soon lacrosse, an original Native American sport, at the tribal recreation center.
Lena Guerito, a Navajo Tribe nutritionist, said encouraging new mothers to breast-feed is the first step for conditioning a newborn.
“When you look into formula, there are a lot of processed ingredients in there,” she said.
Using blue corn or wheat flour in fry bread, a favorite Navajo food, helps, Guerito said. And so does returning to indigenous diets such as squash, juniper, wild banana plant and kneel down bread.
“Getting back to the garden is another campaign, controlling our food supply, so we don’t depend on packaged, fatty choices at restaurants and in stores,” Guerito said.
Beverly Lehi, a Towaoc resident, has become a popular inspiration. Each week she runs from town to Woodies Convenience store and back, an 8-mile trek.
“‘Go Bev, go,’ I hear that a lot,” she said. “I’m 55 and decided diabetes is not going to happen to me.”
Lehi said in the beginning it was difficult, but she took it slowly. She advises Utes to not get discouraged. Begin by just walking every day, which for her led to a running pace.
“I just started feeling better and better, and now I can’t wait for my run,” she said. “You notice how beautiful it is outside, my mind is clearer, and I lost 20 pounds. The alternative is insulin shots, and I hate shots.”