indigenous HAES

Whenever I have conversations about health disparities affecting Native people, the subject of diabetes has a good chance of coming up.  Not always, since it’s often about reproductive health (I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here but I’m a sex educator) , but fairly often.

I went to an amazing and inspiring presentation about language revitalization and the keynote speaker talked about what it “really means” to be Native.  It’s true that many of us* (not all, of course) grow up hearing “be proud to be Native!” but are never told what that means, but seeing our cousins, friends, etc. engaging in destructive behaviors–alcoholism, gang violence, etc.  This can contribute to the belief that being Native really means drinking, living in poverty, and being a stereotypical “lazy Indian.”

It’s also true that we have the highest rate of diabetes among all races, and that 95% (according to the American Diabetes Association) of Native people with diabetes have Type 2.  I’m not an expert on diabetes by any means, but I hear about it left and right from elders, medical professionals, etc.

I posted maybe a year ago about historical trauma and its effects on health disparities, and it comes up a lot in my college classes and fairly often in my job.  I can’t help but wonder, though, whether someone looks at me and makes judgments based on my body about the food I eat and whether it has given/will give/is giving me diabetes because omg deathfat.  Of course, it’s none of their business anyway, but being judged is annoying even when you know it’s unwarranted, shallow and inaccurate judginess.

So how do you overcome the assumptions of predominantly white medical professionals (who may or may not be totally excited about working in Indian Health Services clinics)?  How do you get your voice heard when it’s already being muffled by your race, gender, and size?  How do you explain that the reason why your blood sugars are normal and good “despite” your fat is that hey, fat cells do not automatically raise one’s blood sugar? Or that you are not actually in immediate danger of dying because you’re fat?  Wait, it’s almost like fat in and of itself doesn’t kill people!  Wait, thin people get heart disease too?  WTF??!?

Clearly my fat is leeching sugar and cholesterol into my blood ALL OF THE TIME and that is totes causing health problems because that’s how the obesity works.  How sad.


Whatever it “really means” to be Indian is subjective.  I would hope it doesn’t involve the stereotypes, the alcohol/substance abuse, etc. but everyone’s reality is different and while eating fast food every week may not be part of what it means to be Native, people who do so aren’t less Native.  People like to think that disease is caused by fat and that fat is a choice people make because they’re afraid that they will someday get fat and if they do, they gonna die.  My mom used to (and she hasn’t done this in a long time, knock on wood) “casually mention” how much weight her friends were losing just by cutting out soda, even diet soda! or by eating a handful of whole flaxseeds every day! or by using the Wii Fit! (this one was more recently), or whatever.  As I got older, I interpreted this as “you have my genes and you are fat and if these people lost weight then you can lose weight and I will be reassured that my genes won’t make ME fat omg-please-don’t-let-me-get-fat.”

It seems kinda similar to the way some thin Native people see fat Native people (and I am not comparing fat and alcoholism here, but also the way some sober Natives view alcoholic Natives) as “ruining our image for everyone,” like non-Indians are going to look at us and be like “OMG, a fat lazy Injun!  THEY ARE ALL FAT AND LAZY AND NOT TO BE TRUSTED, AHHHH!!!!” which is all kinds of fucked-up.  We are not obligated to be the sole representative of our race/tribe.  It sucks that a lot of people are forced into that role, but that’s another blog post.

Maybe that’s just my experience.  It’s more of an unspoken (or less spoken, not completely unspoken) thing, and I have no idea whether other fat Native women have experienced this or if just read too much into things/make shit up.  Whatev.

I will write something more coherent about this soon.

*disclaimer:  there are over 560 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. alone, and obvs. every tribe, band, family and individual is different so it’s a) difficult and b) inappropriate to make sweeping generalizations about Native experiences.

June 4, 2010. Tags: , , . FA, intersectionality.


  1. Caitlin replied:

    Yeah so this is an interesting post. It caught my attention on the feed and I was hesitant yet excited to read about this. I’m from Canada, and I’m also Aboriginal*, and work in an Aboriginal organization. I’m not fat, but I have recently begun getting involved in size activism for personal healing and also social justice reasons. My interest in this is because I have an eating disorder, well I’m recovering from one.

    Anyways, I’m in grad school and am doing my thesis on public health approaches to “obesity” in Canada, and am specifically looking at trying to bring in more awareness about HAES, and decrease stigmatization and deconstruct the myths associated with behavior modification. I am in total agreement with the FA/HAES perspective on weight.

    However, how this relates to indigenous communities I am not sure. You ask what it means to be native, well I would wager it means having a connection to the land, a unique and particularly strong sense of culture and community. To me it means many, many wonderful things. But it also means we have to accept the reality that alot of shit has been done to our communities by external forces throughout colonization and this has its effects. Yeah, diabetes is rampant. It sucks. Why this is I am not sure, but I do know that some research tries to show how it is connected to the huge shift in diet at the onset of colonization, and genetically we were not prepared for processed foods. Other factors that come to mind are the increased poverty, lower eduction levels. This all plays into how we, collectively, take care of ourselves. Also, as a result of cultural genocide and the intergenerational effects of oppressive practices many of our people have lower self esteem, which also doesn’t lead to the best health practices.

    If you ask me what HAES means to the indigenous community, I’d say it MUST incorporate a decolonization and healing component. It’s not enough to talk about healthy living in a mainstream context. HAES, if I understand it correctly (just beginning my research) is about promoting health given the context in which the person lives. It means “health” isn’t going to look the same for everyone, especially not a community with A) such a rich culture to draw on, B) a horrible history of oppression

    *Aboriginal- the term used in Canada to include the three Indigenous groups First Nations/Indian (aka your “Native American”, Inuit and Metis)

    Oh, and on a side note the organization I work for has been asked by the government to prepare an “obesity strategy” for the urban Aboriginal population in our area, and I think I am going to try and get involved. The last thing I want is to perpetuate all the myths and bullshit out there.

    What do you think??

    • Linda replied:

      Caitlin, I completely agree (and thanks for the great comment!). I think social justice for indigenous people is rooted in deconstructing colonization; it’s interesting because we have so many different experiences, but one thing we have in common is the soul wound that comes from generations of oppression. Native women face misogyny like other women do, but there’s also the trauma/confusion? I don’t know what the word is (from centuries ago) that came with the huge shift in how Native women were treated in tribal communities. There’s an unimaginably huge spectrum of factors when it comes to health disparities.

      I wish I could wrap my mind around the intricacies of historical grief, but I would need to write a thesis about it or something. And even then I still wouldn’t completely understand it.

  2. wriggles replied:

    I think you are right about historical and present grief that are totally overlooked. As if you can feel these things and it not do anything to your body, but if you eat cake apparently that gives you omgdiabeetus.

    I also wonder if there is a direct connection between the prevalence of alcoholism and fatness. People forget that alcohol is as much a food-it’s second in calorie density only to fat as a general rule-as it is a drug.

    • Linda replied:

      That’s an interesting idea–I think it may be a factor for some, but I do know some recovering alcoholics who have always been thin and I’ve been fat my whole life.

  3. Caitlin replied:

    “I wish I could wrap my mind around the intricacies of historical grief, but I would need to write a thesis about it or something. And even then I still wouldn’t completely understand it.” Yes, very true. It’s so so so complicated, but I think worth contemplating as we advocate foe HAES within all communities, including the Indigenous.

    As for the connection between alcoholism and fatness, I think this is a dangerous link to make. While certainly we can all agree that alcohol has lots of calories and does harmful things to your body in excess, not all alcoholics are fat and not all fat people are alcoholics (or even close). To make this link I think promotes the idea that fatness is something within an individuals control and is somehow “bad” (fatness is not bad, but hurting your body MAY be considered “bad” but this may or may not mean fat or thin).

    So, I think the focus within the indigenous community re: alcohol and other problems like poverty which often equals an inability to access nutritious foods should be linked up to more direct measures of health. For example, focusing on things like cholesterol, blood sugar, etc can give a more accurate picture of health irrespective of weight.

    Also, I think that within the Indigenous community health needs to be viewed holistically. From my experience working in an Aboriginal organization many of us don’t see heath as being only a physical thing; we must also consider spiritual, emotional, mental health and even social health. (I heart the medicine wheel)

  4. wriggles replied:

    I’m referring more to the outer pressures, leading to an inner shift and that shift expressing itself through weight or alcohol.

    Similar process inside the body leading to a different product.

    Fatness is spontaenous, that is it just occurs, mostly it doesn’t even affect hunger or appetite, just the way you body seems to be dealing with energy.

    Whereas alcoholism, appears to be more elective, maybe it isn’t, maybe your body can’t make that change on it’s own, or is not inclined that way, genetically and the desire for alcohol performs a similar function to the energy conservation of fatness.

    I think it would make interesting research and might lead to something better than abstinence programmes, until things get better for your communities.

  5. Bri replied:

    I find the correlations between the Indigenous populations of the US, Canada and Australia to be quite interesting. Diabetes is also a huge problem with Australian Aboriginals. I have quite an involvement with my local Aboriginal community, especially being that my husband is Aboriginal and so is my daughter. I am currently doing some research work within the community as well. Anyway, would love to hear more about this as it is particularly interesting.

    • Linda replied:

      Definitely very interesting. I don’t know how much research has been done, but I heard something in a conference keynote about the effects of colonization on the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin, which is very curious. No idea whether that information is valid, but I’ll see if I can find some info to back it up.

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