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.