Health | Opinion

Vena A-dae Romero: Reclaiming our tribal communities from obesity and diabetes

The Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is located on ancestral lands of Cochiti Pueblo. Photo: Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management

Obesity and diabetes are words heard throughout Indian Country, with high rates of both common across the nation. But Vena A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti Pueblo / Kiowa) of the First Nations Development Institute argues that accepting those labels aren't necessarily helping tribal communities improve their food and agricultural systems:
Am I denying that many American Indian communities have higher than normal poverty rates? Higher than normal obesity rates? Diabetes rates? Absolutely not, but we can choose to NOT claim those titles either. In fact, focusing on those labels seem to exacerbate the problem. According to label theory, the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It is associated with the concepts of self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping, according to Wikipedia. So as we spout statistics that claim over half of the American Indian generation is sick or fat, what about the other half? Are we paving the way for the healthy individuals in our communities to succumb to the labels we claim in the name of funding?

Even more disturbing, by claiming obesity and disease statistics, we are focusing, as my friend said, on an issue that shouldn’t be the focus. The real issue is understanding how directed social and economic policies have wounded our food systems. In addition, the real issue is the need for resurgence of traditional food systems, locally controlled food systems, healthy familial ties, and ultimately, the need for our Native languages to increase the vocabulary of our young people to include words (preferably in our Native tongues) that strengthen our ancestral ties to our earth, to our land, and to each other, which is in fact, the true description of our health. Ultimately, the word obesity can sit in our mouths like greasy old donuts for years resulting in the exact same effect on a person – a person who feels like their situation is a disease that can not be helped or worse yet, they have no self-control over so they as the individual are the problem. Or…we can choose to feed our children words like “resurgence,” or “knowledge,” (there are far better descriptors in our Native languages) that reminds our young people we have far too many advantages, tools, knowledge, and resilient examples of even greater past challenges we have overcome as indigenous people rather than submit to the labels some well-meaning do-gooder has chosen to give us. We can choose community solutions to address our health and food needs because our communities were the very target that were meant to be destroyed in the first place.

Read More on the Story:
Vena A-dae Romero: The Real Obesity Problem: Shed the Labeling (Indian Country Today 2/13)