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A Return to Cultural Traditions to Fight Diabetes and Obesity


In American Indian communities, diabetes is a big problem. Among American Indian and Alaska Native adults, the rate of diabetes is 2.3 times higher than that of non-Hispanic Whites, and children ages 10 to 19 are nine times more likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes than White children of the same age. And these rates are increasing: From 1990 to 2009, there was a 110 percent increase in diagnosed diabetes in American Indians.

In addition to diabetes, American Indian populations have some the highest rates of childhood obesity in the United States. According to a report from 2014, the obesity rates among American Indian and Alaska Native children from low-income families was 20.8 percent, much higher than the national average of 14.4 percent.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is mainly located in Oklahoma, and as of 2009 had a population of more than 69,000. Within their population, the Muscogee Food Sovereignty Initiative (MFSI) is one group working on strategies that could curb the rates of diabetes and obesity in Native Americans overall.

To that end, MFSI seeks to encourage the Muscogee people to return to more traditional farming and cooking methods. “Diabetes is rampant. We didn’t have those types of things when we were basically eating the traditional foods in Georgia and Alabama,” explains George Tiger, Chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, referring to the period of time before the Trail of Tears, when the Muscogee were primarily located in the southeast United States.

Among other programs, MFSI hopes to encourage healthy eating in the Muscogee community by promoting farmers’ markets, providing hands-on classes and education opportunities and teaching sustainable agriculture practices. “Muscogee Food Sovereignty Initiative took on projects to teach and train and learn,” notes Rita Williams, Project Director at MFSI.

The group also supports a seed bank, to help preserve culturally important seeds that are disappearing. So far, they have already been successful in restoring a type of corn called Sofkee that was near extinction.

Working together, MFSI hopes that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation can return to more traditional means for growing and preparing food, and through those lifestyle changes that the rates of diabetes and obesity in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation will decline.

“Change is difficult, but change can happen,” says Rita.