Tim Giago: Beau LeBeau teaches us about the other 'good meat'

The video is called “Good Meat” and the tagline says it is “a look at one man’s struggle to maintain a traditional Native diet on a modern Reservation.”

“Good Meat” obviously refers to the traditional meal of the Plains Indians: buffalo.

Beau LeBeau, a slim-trim star basketball player in his youth, he is now 35, suddenly found himself diagnosed with diabetes. His mother, Tess, had diabetes and he believes this disease contributed to the cancer that took her life at age 52.

Beau’s father, Dusty LeBeau, is one of the truly great basketball coaches in South Dakota’s history. He has taken both boys and girls teams to the state championship.

Beau’s sister, Dani, said that after Beau’s weight climbed to 333 pounds he seemed to be angry all of the time and he would sit on the couch watching television nearly all night and he would snack and snack.

When Beau finally decided to do something about it after the death of his mother, he went to visit a physician named Kevin Weiland. Dr. Weiland said that after he diagnosed Beau with Type II Diabetes he could see in his face how hard it hit him. He said, “Beau looked at me but his eyes were staring far past me.” Dr. Weiland said it seems that he could see the devastation of diabetes that had taken a toll on his friends and family over the years with lost limbs, blindness and all of the other horrific after-effects of the disease.

Dr. Weiland continued, “The scale of obesity among Native Americans is epidemic. I would say that over 50 percent of my Lakota patients have diabetes already. Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Reservation is around 50 whereas nationally it’s around 70 to 80 years old.”

His words were backed up by the Sam Hurst, writer and director of “Good Meat.” I first met Sam when I lectured to the Nieman Fellows at Harvard in 1993. Hurst said, “Imagine living in the middle of a deadly epidemic like small pox or measles that ravages a community, but the people have become so accustomed to its presence among them that it is as if people stop paying attention to the matter. You can see the epidemic but no one ever quantified it or put a face to it.”

The documentary follows the struggles of Beau as he switches to a buffalo diet, a diet made possible when he bought a 2-year-old buffalo from the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Parks and Recreation range officers. He also starts an exercise regimen.

The Oglala have an estimated herd of 300 buffalo and tribal members can purchase a buffalo for around $400. It costs them another $400 to have it butchered and cut into packets of steaks, burgers, etc.

Beau eventually lost nearly 100 pounds, but he was continually amazed at the attitudes of his fellow tribal members. They knew he was making a major effort to combat diabetes by going on the strict diet, but most acknowledged that they didn’t have the gumption to emulate him. Even his sisters shied away from the buffalo meat because they said it tasted “gamey.”

And so with an epidemic of diabetes and obesity all around him, even his own family turned away from the “good meat” that would have stopped their chances of getting diabetes and given them a longer and healthier life.

Did Beau make it? The film never really reaches that conclusion. Beau struggles to stay on the diet, but like many before him, he crashes and burns every now and then, and toward the end of the film, his crashes seem to be occurring more frequently.

He finds that he doesn’t have the money to buy another buffalo after the meat in his frozen food locker run out. But by following a diet of, a diet his ancestors lived by for hundreds of years, he managed to lose nearly 100 pounds and admittedly felt better than he had in many years.

Kibbe Conti, a Native American nutritionist, a lady who is bringing nutritional meals to the Indian Health Service Hospital in Rapid City, advised Beau when he first started his diet about the additional nutritional foods he would need to support his efforts.

Beau said, “My ancestors lived long lives that often reached 100. They were active in the hunt and their main diet was the buffalo and here we live only half of that time and the answer is right here in front of us, staring us right in the face and we can’t get ourselves organized.”

As Beau’s friends watched him shed the pounds they would often say, “I wish I could do what you are doing,” and they would let it go with that and not even volunteering to try it.

This documentary did not answer all of the questions that arose in my mind, but in a small way it is a start. It was produced by the Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc. in Lincoln, Nebraska and you can get it by contacting Jessica Kinser at 402-472-8607 or emailing her at jkinser2@unl.edu.

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