As a child, Terrol Dew Johnson expected to lose a leg one day. It

was what happened to the elders. They got “bad sugar.” They

became sleepy, their circulation slowed and inevitably

they underwent amputations. It had happened to his

grandmother, and Johnson assumed it was something

that occurred later in life.





















 <p> Not that the teachers on his reservation in Arizona

























 didn't try to convince him otherwise. The reservation today has



























 the highest rates of diabetes in the world, and in home economics classes,

























along with other American Indians, Johnson received lectures and brochures

























on the benefits of eating healthy. All that talk didn't do much



























 good. His reaction was typical of youngsters: "Oh God. Not another

























pamphlet." Teachers recommended eating more vegetables like broccoli.

























 But to Johnson such talk was "a white thing." "My

























 grandparents didn't teach me to cook broccoli and cauliflower," he























says. They cooked the rabbit they hunted.</p>

























 <p> So he kept on drinking a six-pack of Pepsi every

























day. By the time he turned 25, he noticed he was



























irritable and sleepy. After a trip to the doctor, he was diagnosed























with Type 2 diabetes. </p>

























<p> For a person with an empty stomach, a normal reading

























of how much sugar they have in their blood stream

























 is under 110. Johnson had a reading of 500. The nurse

























 who called him at home to tell him the results of his medical exam

























asked, "Are you still alive,

























Mr. Johnson? Are you conscious?"</p>























<p> Now 32, Johnson runs a grassroots cultural organization

























 on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, 60 miles west of Tucson, Ariz.

























 More than 50 percent of adults on the reservation have the disease,



























 according to Indian Health Service. The epidemic is largely a result



























of diets high in starch and sugar and lifestyles that don't include



























 much exercise, experts say. Scientists are also studying whether American

























 Indians have a genetic predisposition for diabetes. But health experts

























contend that it is not a "diabetes gene" that makes Indians



























 vulnerable. "It's how their bodies have changed with the



























environment," says Janice Thompson, director of the Office of

























 Native American Diabetes Programs in New Mexico. Experts like her say

























 healthier eating and exercise can make a great difference in preventing

























 diabetes and in managing the disease.</p>

























 <p> In response, Johnson's organization is harvesting desert foods



























like tepary beans that were once common among his people. The foods,



























low in sugar, harken back to a time when diabetes did not prevail in

























Indian Country. </p>

 <p> A similar story is unfolding on the White Earth Reservation



























in Minnesota, where a group founded by Winona LaDuke



























is providing foods like wild rice and buffalo meat

























to about 200 elders who suffer from diabetes and



























have severely limited incomes. Organizers there also



























hope that these foods—low in sugar and fat—will help diabetics.



























 It is a hope that carries much urgency for American Indians across

























the country, among whom diabetes has increased by 50 percent in the



























 last ten years, according to the Indian Health Service. And what happens



























for Indians and what they do to fight the disease is of particular

























interest to other communities of color. According to the Centers for



























Disease Control, African-Americans and Latinos are two to three times























 more likely than whites to have diabetes.</p>

























 <p> Despite these dire statistics, Johnson is chipper



























 and enthusiastic. A basket weaver and artist, he



























believes that more native people will soon discover



























 the joy of eating tepary beans—and

























not just to lower their blood glucose readings. What's his selling

























point for eating this healthy food? It's good for your cultural

























 identity.</p>

























 <p><strong>Back to the Bean</strong><br />



























Tepary beans were once in abundance in Arizona for



























the Tohono O'odham, also known as the Desert People. The beans,



























 which are white or brown, are eaten plain or added to stews. In the



























 1930s, about 1.3 million pounds of tepary beans were produced on



























the reservation. By 2001, only 100 pounds were harvested. Much happened



























 in the intervening 70 years. Indians went to fight in world wars,





























 and others went to the cities for jobs. The land fell idle, production























dropped and diabetes rates began to soar. </p>























<p> The Tohono O'odham reservation straddles the United States border



























 with Mexico, which essentially separated the Desert People into two



























 countries. The reservation, the second largest in the country, is about



























 the size of Connecticut. Along with the high rates of diabetes, it

























has high rates of poverty and unemployment: 47 percent of families

























with children under the age of five are living in poverty, and close



























to 60 percent of people don't have work, according to the 2000





















Census. </p>

























<p> In 1996, Johnson connected with Tristan Reader, a



























 community gardener on the reservation. The two men

























applied for grant money to start Tohono O’odham Community Action, an organization

























 now better known by its acronym, TOCA. They offer classes in basket



























 weaving and other traditional arts and run a youth and elder program.

























 And they began harvesting desert foods in Reader’s community



























garden. In 2001, they cleared the 30-acre farm that had once belonged

























 to Johnson’s grandfather, who died from diabetes complications.



























 They began growing and cultivating tepary beans, and last year they



























 harvested 10,000 pounds of the beans. Because Type 2 diabetes is the



























result of the body not being able to break down sugar, tepary beans,























which are low in sugar, are a helpful addition to the diet of a diabetic.</p>























 <p> The tepary beans are now being sold for about five



























dollars a pound at Bashas’, the reservation’s sole supermarket,



























 as well as in trading posts throughout the reservation.



























 The organization also gave away surplus crops to



























about 100 community members at their second annual harvest celebration.



























 But the beans aren’t



























just for Indians. The white tepary beans are sold

























 online for about $19 for two pounds through <a href="http://www.heritagefoodsusa.com" target="_blank">Heritage

























Foods USA</a>, a



























company that sells rare crops and livestock. The



























profits from selling the beans online have helped

























 TOCA buy more equipment to harvest more foods for the community. Another



























desert food, the cholla bud, is also sold online. It's similar

























to the texture of okra and can be roasted or sauteed. Cholla buds are

























 also low on the Glycemic index, because they slowly release the food's

























glucose into the body so there isn't a sugar rush. </p>

























 <p> Johnson is not just excited about how healthy these

























 foods are. "You're not just seeing these beans," he



























 says. "You're seeing the whole culture. That bean holds























 our language, our songs, our history." </p>

























 <p> Young Indians, as well as older ones, have been alienated



























 from their own culture, Johnson says, and he thinks



























 these foods can reintroduce them to the traditions.



























 After all, these foods are used in ceremonies and

























 carry the stories of the Desert People. For example,



























it is said that when Coyote was running with a bag

























of tepary beans, he tripped and the white beans flew into the sky,





















creating the Milky Way. </p>

























<p> Chuckling, Johnson says, "That's all I'm going to



























 tell you because I'm not supposed to be telling legends." But

























 these stories are part of the importance of traditional foods, he argues. "We

























 don't know traditional songs about broccoli," he says and

























 then poses a question that most people would be stumped to answer:





















What story are you going to tell about broccoli?</p>

























<p> TOCA now has a staff of seven, and tepary beans are

























 served at the local hospital once a week. The beans



























 will soon be cooked up at the Santa Rosa Boarding

























 School on the reservation, and Johnson is excited

























 to teach kids about their culture through these foods.

























He and his staff are also talking with the local



























WIC program about having cholla buds included in



























a new program that offers alternative food options





















for mothers and their children.</p>

























 <p> Johnson's own diet has changed since he was diagnosed with diabetes.

























He doesn't drink soda anymore, and he eats tepary beans twice

























 a week at least. He has begun to work out on the reservation. But he



























admits he stops at the fast food places near his home in Tucson. There's



























a bevy of them: Taco Bell, KFC and Jack in the Box. At 6' 2",





















 he weighs 300 pounds.</p>























 <p> Convincing people to return to any kind of traditional



























diet could be challenging. Food is much more emotional

























now than it was a hundred years ago, says Janice



























Thompson. She is leading research on Indian girls

























 in Albuquerque who don't have diabetes and those



























whose blood glucose levels are high enough to make them pre-diabetic.

























 Girls and women are more likely to develop diabetes, she says. Research



























 is not conclusive yet as to why, but one reason might be that girls























 are less likely to be encouraged to exercise, she says.</p>

























 <p> According to Thompson, young people are unlikely

























to cook or prepare meals at home. So she's not sure that they

























 would take to tepary beans or other traditional foods. She insists

























on practicality, teaching the young women to eat less when they eat



























 out. Thompson also questions the idea that everything traditional is



























good. Fry bread, she points out, is fried dough, and it's considered























a traditional Indian food.</p>



























<p><strong>Uncontrolled Diabetes</strong><br />

























 As with many communities, the history of Native Americans



























 can be found in the story of their foods. Hollow Bone, an elder and



























 healer who lives on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, says





























that in the migration story of his people, they were told that they “would





























come to the land where the food grew above the water.” What



























 they found was wild rice, which grows in lakes and rivers in what





























 is now Minnesota. To reach the rice, people go out in canoes and

























carefully harvest the rice by hand. </p>

























<p> Of course, besides wild rice, what Hollow Bone’s ancestors also

























 found was the white man, and in the 1800s, as the federal government



























forced Indians onto reservations, Indians were cut off from hunting



























 and given rations. Thompson relates that the government gave “bags

























of refined sugar, flour and lard and said, ‘Here, survive,’ because



























 the government was trying to annihilate them. Amazingly, they survived.”</p>

























<p> So, the diet that developed in Indian Country was



























 one to “stretch the budget,” says Hollow Bone, who grew



























 up in northern Minnesota. Foods like fry bread came to be thought of



























as traditionally native. So much so that in her column for <em>Indian

























 Country Today</em> native journalist and poet Suzan Shown Harjo wrote to say her



























new year’s resolution was to ban the fried dough from her own

























 diet. She called on others to follow. Harjo, the president and executive



























director of the Morningstar Institute, a national Indian rights organization,

























 wrote that fry bread was neither healthy for the body nor the culture,

























having become a stereotypical image associated with Indians. </p>























 <p> A diet of “bacon and grease” resulted in increased obesity



























and a spike in the rate of diabetes among Indians. Today, they are

























2.6 times more likely to have diagnosed diabetes than whites, according



























 to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse. </p>

























<p> However, if the disease went unchecked in Indian

























Country, experts believe it had to do with the message

























that people received. There’s been a lot of fatalism, says Thompson. “When

























you’re told by your doctor that you could get diabetes, you don’t

























 hear the ‘could’ part,” she says. “What they



























hear is that you’re going to die tomorrow because of your race.” </p>























 <p> That message began to change three years ago with



























 the Diabetes Prevention Program, a nationwide clinical

























trial funded in part through the U.S. Department



























of Health and Human Services. The trial established



























 that a diabetic who ate healthier and exercised had



























 better results than one who only took medication



























and didn’t alter



























their lifestyle. The research surprised nutritionists, says Thompson.

























 The emphasis in diabetes programs had been on the medication part.

























Now they knew that diet could make a huge difference.</p>























 <p> That message, though, has yet to make its way into



























Indian Country. At the White Earth Health Center,

























 nutritionist Gail Gardner still sees that Native



























Americans continue to receive mixed messages about

























what diabetes is. What they see on the news is that



























 diabetes is raging in Indian Country, she says. “It’s not

























 diabetes,” she notes, “it’s uncontrolled diabetes.”</p>

























 <p> About 700 patients at the health center have diabetes,





























she says. Poverty rates are also high on the reservation.





























 All children at the Pine Point Public School there





























qualify for free lunches, according to the White



























Earth Land Recovery Project.</p>



























<p><strong>Getting the Good Commodities</strong><br />



























Hollow Bone reports that changing his diet has been





























 hard. The 60-year-old was diagnosed with diabetes ten years ago.



























At the time, he drank a gallon of milk a day, and even now he concedes





























that, “when I drive by Dairy Queens, my car automatically turns



























 in.” But the disease has taken its toll. Six years ago, he





























underwent open heart surgery because of clogged arteries. Since then,



























 he’s had to take insulin every morning and evening. </p>

























<p> Once a month, he receives a package of traditional



























foods from the White Earth Land Recovery Project.

























 The package usually includes buffalo meat and wild rice. Sometimes

























it includes foods that have been donated, like potatoes. It is a welcome



























relief to elders on the White Earth Reservation, where the median income



























is less than $10,000 a year. At the supermarket, buffalo meat is just

























 too expensive for most Indians, says Becky Niemi, development director

























for the White Earth Land Recovery Project, who adds that traditional



























foods are out of reach for most Indians.</p>

























<p> The Mino-Miijim, or Good Food, program began in 2001

























when Margaret Smith went knocking on doors on the

























 reservation. She wanted to find out how many other

























elders like herself had diabetes and needed access to healthy food.



























 The program started with 75 people, and four years later it has more



























than doubled to 180. Elders have to be 55 years or older and qualify



























for federal assistance like food stamps and social security. If the



























 organization had more financial support, they could easily reach many

























 more people, Niemi says. It takes Smith a week to travel across the



























 reservation with those foods. Many of the elders remember the traditional

























 foods from ceremonies. They call them the “good commodities,” Niemi says. It is a way to distinguish



























the food from the cheese and canned pork that the federal government



























gives. </p>

























 <p> Yet, even as the program helps diabetic elders, LaDuke’s group



























is fighting to preserve the wild rice. The University of Minnesota

























has finished the genomic map of the wild rice, opening the way, community

























 activists say, for corporations to patent the rice and sell it at a



























 profit—effectively making the rice too expensive for most Indians.</p>



























<p> It is an issue that infuriates Hollow Bone, who talks



























 about wild rice on his weekly radio show on KPRM-AM



























 (870). He recalls that when he was growing up, he

























 ate the fish his grandfather caught. The family used



























cans to save the grease from one meal to cook the

























 next. Now, he eats wild rice about two times a week and says that the

























 foods from the Good Food program help keep him on track with his diet.</p>























<p> Despite his private ordeal with diabetes, Hollow

























Bone has maintained his sense of humor. He says laughter



























is a way of letting the spirit come into the body,

























and he even jokes about diabetes and how much fry

























 bread his community eats. “The creator must



























 have given us wild rice,” he says, chuckling, “because

























he knew how much fry bread we were going to eat.”</p>