Confined to be Fat
A wise Cree Indian Proverb proclaims, “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” Our world has been heavily polluted while natural resources dwindle away all because of society’s need for more. Going back hundreds of years, the spiritual souls of the Native Americans knew the importance of mother earth’s delicate balance and treasured/valued everything that was given to them by “her”. They respected mother earth along with her creatures and had battled for many, many years against the people who did not hesitate to tear her down for personal and financial gain. Defeated by the white man, they are now suffering and face many inevitable hardships. Because of the white settlers’ greed to dominate land, the health of the Native Americans has declined severely as they fought to survive by adapting to their change of diet and environment brought on from their confinement to reservations.
For many generations, before the white settlers arrived and tainted the Native American diet, early Natives ate natural foods that they hunted and gathered from the land. According to David C. King, author of First People: An Illustrated History of American Indians, as these indigenous people evolved, farming developed as early as 8000 BCE. This provided them with stability and a chance to leave behind their nomadic lifestyle and live in settled villages. A steady supply of food also meant that they could support a growing population. Corn became the main staple of food among many Native societies. They often planted this alongside beans and squash because the beans could grow up the cornstalk, and the squash kept the soil moist and cool. The trio became known as the “three sisters.” Other foods harvested were wild grains, chilies, onions and beans, all high in fiber/carbohydrates and low in fat (Teufel). Yet, some groups never developed agriculture, but because of where each group lived geographically, they made do with their surroundings in the most practical way. For instance, the Great Plain Indians, such as the Sioux and Comanche, led a nomadic lifestyle by following the buffalo, dependent on it for food and tools needed for everyday life. The Plateau Indians lived near river valleys where they had access to an abundance of salmon. While life among the Great Basin was harsh compared to other areas, despite its minimal resources, the Natives there survived by using special sticks to dig at the ground to unearth roots, snakes and insects. They also hunted antelope and on occasion had fish. For the Pacific Northwest Indians, even though they had never known cultivation, they did not go hungry due to an ample supply of salmon, halibut, seals, whales and shellfish. Indeed the Native societies had everything they needed from mother earth, but once contact with the white settlers occurred, their healthy, natural way of eating and living would forever be destroyed.
As the whites seized Native American land and resources, they forced the indigenous people into relocation/confinement where Natives’ stomachs were introduced to the white settlers’ food in an attempt to stave off hunger. According to Nutrient Health Associations In The Historic and Contemporary Diets of Southwest Native Americans, during this time they ate whatever they could to survive: rats, cactus fruits, birds, roots, prairie dogs, locusts and the new addition of military rations. These rations consisted of sugar, bacon, potatoes, flour, baking powder, coffee, lard and tea. The Natives made what they could with these ingredients, coming up with the creation of fry bread, (a whopping 335 calories per serving). Later, federally recognized tribes were allowed to go back to their land, but to their disappointment, found their once nutrient rich soil and wild resources depleted by the white ranchers (Teufel). Buffalo became scarce, slaughtered to make way for railroad tracks and to weaken the Native societies that depended on the animal for sustenance. Some were hunted for sport and their valuable hides, leaving the carcasses behind to rot, wasting precious meat. Then, in 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which placed the Native societies on lands deemed unworthy to the whites called reservations (King). The environmental changes combined with reservation settlement caused starvation among the Native Americans for periods of time. Jean A. Keller, a professor of American Indian Studies at Palomar College and author of the article When Native Foods Disappeared, reported that the Native children that were sent to boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them into the white culture, also experienced starvation and malnutrition deficiencies due to a shortage of fresh food available from the school farm and ingesting low quality food commodities. To further add to their growing unhealthy lifestyle, once these children graduated, they had conformed to their new diet and taught their families the dietary habits learned at school. Because many of the Natives were unable to access traditional foods and suffered from malnutrition, by the 1970s, the government provided them with subsidized food assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These foods were highly processed, laden with high amounts of fat, sodium and sugar. Some of these items included flour, rice, fruit juices, canned vegetables that were high in sodium, canned potted meats, powdered milk, sugary canned fruits, lard, butter, macaroni and sugar. As their traditional diet/style of living was slipping into the past, only to be substituted by “imprisonment” and government handouts of nutrient devoid food substances, Natives were becoming overweight and soon plagued with health issues never before seen among their culture.
With their freedom overpowered, confinement to reservations have interrupted the natural way of Native life, resulting in a sedentary lifestyle and activating their “thrifty” gene to take over. In the article, The Geneticization of Aboriginal Diabetes and Obesity: Adding Another Scene to the Story of the Thrifty Gene, geneticist James V. Neel, came up with the thrifty gene theory in 1962. He believed that indigenous groups contained a “thrifty” gene that helped them preserve body fat in order to survive long periods of famine, yet in a world dominated by “Westernization”, these hunter/gatherers were overcome by obesity due to their rapid nutritional decline and lifestyle changes. Before Euro-American contact, these indigenous people spent a great amount of energy hunting, gathering, and processing wild and domesticated foods to consume. Since then, their physical activity has diminished considerably as processed foods are made more accessible. Some scientists even changed their opinion from genetics to epigenetics, which includes the effects of physical and social environments combined with genetics (Tiedt, Brown 24). Nicolette Teufel, a professor at University of Arizona and Chair of the Family and Child Health Section of the Health Promotion Sciences Division, has worked with Native American communities in the Southeast since the mid-1970’s. During one of her conversations about food with an elderly Native American man, he said, “Indians should eat while they can. Tomorrow there may be no food.” She believes this mindset among many Natives stems from their past events of having to adapt to a long history of food insecurity. Overeating, poor diet and lack of exercise has lead to many serious health illnesses. Some chronic diseases that plague the Native communities are type II diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver and cancer of the gallbladder, cervix and stomach. In fact, the Southwest Native Americans have the highest diabetes rate in the world. Sentenced to a life in a world of confinement and boundaries, isolated from the “outside” world, living/growing up on reservations not only has set up Native Americans for a life of health problems, but also financial hardship.
In 2014, Emma Woolf had written an article called If You’re Fat You’ve Only Got Yourself To Blame, which focused on her arguments of common knowledge and self control, yet even though I’m sure everyone does posses nutritional common knowledge, there are hurdles too great to overcome that could hinder a life of self improvement let alone reach optimal health. Diabetes and obesity issues among the Native people are currently at an all time high because those still living on reservations are more likely to live in poverty, forcing them to rely on government food assistance and choose inexpensive junk foods over pricier nutritious foods. The poverty issues among reservations can be traced back to 1887 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Severalty Act into law. Reservation land which was communal property was divided up and given to individuals that were the head of the families to live and farm on. After 25 years, if they did not succeed at farming, the land would be taken back by the government to sell to white settlers. Because the land set aside for reservations was usually dry and depleted, it was extremely difficult to grow crops let alone have anyone to sell produce to since reservations were located in remote areas. It took only 12 years for the 138 million acres of landholdings to dwindle to 78 million, a massive loss of Indian land. During this time they were also not allowed to make a living by selling artwork, fish or game. Furthermore, the Natives that held job responsibilities such as medicine man, teacher or spiritual leader, were replaced by white, Christian, government officials (ushistory.org). The Native Americans were left jobless, an unfortunate trend that extends to this day. According to Wikipedia, “The history of the reservation system has resulted in concentrated poverty. Regardless of urbanicity, areas of concentrated poverty tend to have higher crime rates, underperforming schools, poor housing, poor health conditions, limited private services, and few job opportunities.” For the few jobs that are available among reservations today, many of the tribal members do not have the qualifications and training to successfully carry out the job tasks required. They face the same problems with the city jobs that are located near reservations and are often discriminated against as a reservation Native. This is due to the school systems on the reservations. The standards here are very low compared to the education systems in urban cities. Of the adults living on the reservation, about half of them attained a high school diploma. The lowest goes to the Gila River Reservation from Arizona; only one third have graduated. Poor education results in unemployment, which in turn effects poverty levels. Thirty-one percent of Natives living on reservation live in poverty (Tiedt, Brown 25). Housing is often overcrowded with families supporting other family members that are homeless. Many homes do not have adequate plumbing, access to telephone landlines or a vehicle for transportation. Without the money to be able to afford these amenities, tribal members rely heavily on government assistance such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamp programs and government food distributions, also known as “commodities.” With little money and many mouths to feed, tribal members usually opt to purchase inexpensive, processed foods that have a long shelf life. While government assistance doesn’t reduce poverty, it does help these families get by. Trapped from the beginnings of reservation confinement, it seems the Native Americans will always struggle and have to rely on the people who banished them there in the first place.
As a whole, the Native Americans of today are not solely at fault for their poor health. These individuals have had their lives turned upside down, stripped of their traditional beliefs and forced to live in a “box” that has predisposed them to a life of isolation, poverty, helplessness, obesity and health complications. It is a tragedy that these once strong, independent warriors will continue to battle with these issues for generations to come.
Brown, Lori A., and Jane A. Tiedt. “Allostatic Load: The Relationship Between Chronic Stress and Diabetes in Native Americans.” Journal of Theory Construction & Testing 18.1 (2014): 22-27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 April 2016.
Keller, Jean A. “When Native Foods Were Left Behind.” News From Native California 15.3 (Spring 2002): 22. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 May 2016.
King, David C. First People: An Illustrated History of American Indians. New York: DK Publishing, 2008. Print.
Poudrier, Jennifer. “The Geneticization of Aboriginal Diabetes and Obesity: Adding Another Scene to the Story of the ThriftyGene.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 44.2 (May 2007): 237-261. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 May 2016.
“Reservation Poverty.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. 18 April 2016. Web.
Teufel, Nicolette I. “Nutrient-health associations in the historic and contemporary diets of Southwest Native Americans.” Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine 6.2 (1996): 179. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 April 2016.
U.S. History Pre-Columbian to The New Millennium. ushistory.org., 2014. Web. 7 May 2016.
Woolf, Emma. “If You’re Fat You’ve Only Got Yourself To Blame.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast, 15 April 2014. Web. 30 May 2016.