The NYTimes reports that the Gila River tribe won a court case, so they will again be allotted a share of water rights so they can irrigate their fields.

So what does this have to do with Diabetes?

Well, those of us who have worked for the Indian Health Service know that there is an epidemic of Diabetes among some Indian tribes: and often it is among those who lost their traditional ways of life and diet.

The Pima and Maricopa tribes were the original farmers in the Phoenix area.

The Spanish found these people diverting the waters of the Gila into canals they had constructed, with the aid of only wood and stone tools, which extended for miles and miles. Their engineering ability was amazing to these new arrivals. From the larger canals they had head gate to divert waters to the actual field of crops. It was a combined effort with each village responsible for the maintenance of the canal system to their fields and village. Field houses were often put up near the fields but home was in the main village.

What happened? A little reported story: a demographic collapse due to smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza, hepatitis and other diseases that came to the Americas with the white man.

But the real destruction to the culture came when the water was diverted by upstream farmers:

Due to their diversion upstream the waters finally stopped flowing down in the lower valley where the O’othom and Pee Posh lived. This major event forced some of the people to migrate to the Salt River Valley only to suffer the same fate, the eventual loss of water.

The people ended up eating food subsidies from the government.

food rations sent by the federal government — white flour, lard, canned meats and other sugary, processed foods — conspired with the genetic anomalies of the Indians to sow an obesity epidemic that has left the reservation with among the highest rates of diabetes in the world.

I won’t get into the argument about how the white man destroyed the culture. Some of it was accidental, some was deliberate, but some of it was the result of a deadly paternalism.
Traditional ways were lost, partly because people were placed on reservations, partly because the skills were lost as children were sent to boarding schools, losing the knowledge usually taught by their elders, and partly because the children saw their parent’s ways were mocked or their schooling implied the Indian culture was inferior.

Terrible, terrible. But what is the alternative? In Africa, I saw Apartheid, where Bantus were denied education because the Boers thought they shouldn’t learn white man’s ways. That didn’t work either: indeed, it just allowed these uneducated people to be exploited more easily.

So, unlike activists, I have no perfect solution, only observations on the problem.

But one can see the result of the benevolent “experts”: a loss of memory, a loss of pride, and the Pima tribe with the highest incidence of Diabetes in the United States.

Yet I found it interesting that some tribes, such as the Apache and Navajo, who did keep traditional ways, which included hard work and a better diet, have a much lower incidence of Diabetes.

Which makes me suspect there is something about diet that is causing the world wide epidemic of Diabetes.

Is it the fat in the diet? Processed food? High density calories? Easily obtained snacks? Or is it because the long walks and heavy physical labour of our ancestors is no longer the norm? Is it those commercials on TV and radio that tempt you with high calorie easily obtained food? or is it because when one’s budget is tight, will you buy fresh vegetables or just grab something easier and cheaper to cook and eat?

So one hopes that the NYTimes article is correct, and allowing irrigation water will result in the tribal members return to their healthier ways of the ancestors.

One suspects that improved diet, starting with children, along with increasing exercize as people till their gardens will be a good first step.

So one hopes that the tribe will have the elders help teach the younger ones the value of eating what they grow, and if they do it right, they will have a surplus to sell for a profit.

What I suspect, however, is that a few outsiders will tempt families with promises of big easy money, buy up all their rights to the fields and water, plant one crop to sell elsewhere to make a profit, and the cycle of poverty and dependency –and Diabetes –will continue.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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