A bison herd being raised in South Dakota by the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is one way the tribe is combating diabetes among its people. Photo: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Health | Opinion

Tim Giago: Native Americans are dying from diabetes every year




Notes from Indian Country

Diabetes: A disease that is ravaging Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji – Stands Up For Them)

Over the years I have written about the epidemic that is the scourge of Indian Country: Diabetes.

It is a disease that hits close to home. My younger sister Shirley suffered with it. First she lost a leg, and then an arm and had to go on dialysis much too young. Diabetes eventually proved too much for her and she died at a young age. My sister Sophie also died of the ravages of diabetes.

Eric Yellow Boy, a longtime friend and employee, was admitted to Rapid City Regional Hospital on Friday due to problems related to his diabetes. My wife and I went to the hospital to visit him on Saturday and we were told that he was “in surgery” and we found out that he was about to lose a leg.

I spoke with him today for the first time since he lost his leg. We were talking about his doctor and how they had taken him to surgery on Saturday and he said it happened so fast that he didn’t have time to ask any questions. He said, “Yesterday, after coming out of the recovery room, the pain was so bad that the doctor had to put me under anesthesia again.”

He started to tell me about what happened on Sunday. He said, “I looked down at my leg for the first time” and then he couldn’t go on. It was such a shock to see that his leg was gone he couldn’t go on talking about it. We talked for a little while more and he said he is looking forward to rehab and getting back to work.

Eric is a young man with a great sense of humor and a solid and reliable worker. He has worked for me for several years and suffered from his illness during all of those years. Perhaps there were times when he didn’t take as good a care of himself as he should have, but it seems that people with diabetes have a tendency to do that. One doesn’t feel the illness like other diseases and so those of us with diabetes (I am one) go about our lives as if there is nothing wrong with us. Eventually the disease catches up to us.


As Eric discovered things begin to happen over which he had little or no control. First the feet begin to exhibit signs of the disease. With Eric it was the loss of a toe. We all joked with him about it at work, but we could sense that Eric was afraid. He kept on working and he really enjoyed his work as a telemarketer for the newspaper. What Eric said next should be a lesson to all of us. He said, “I know I should have taken better care of myself, but when you have diabetes you still feel as if there is nothing wrong and you do all of the things you know are killing you, but you just can’t stop.”

The Indian tribes of the Great Plains signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and one of the provisions of that treaty was that in exchange for millions of acres of land that made America what it is today, health care would be provided for the people in perpetuity. Well, that hasn’t always been the case. The people of the Great Plains lived on a diet that was healthy. They ate buffalo, plants like timpsila (turnips), traded for corn, squash, and tomatoes with the Southern tribes, plus they ate the fresh fruits like blueberries, currents, and plums that grew in abundance.

When the white men killed off most of the buffalo in a deliberate attempt to subdue the tribes by starvation, they substituted the healthy diets of the Indian people with commodity foods. The foods were high in starch, bad fats, and carbohydrates, foods that were never a part of the diet of the people and suddenly diseases that were never familiar to the people began to appear. Diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer and other deadly diseases soon began to take a terrible toll on the people.

And the heath care guaranteed by the treaties fell by the wayside. Even today the saying in Indian Country is “Don’t get sick after June,” because that is when most of the funds allocated to the Indian Health Service usually run out. It has been a continuous struggle for the Indian nations to force the U. S. Government to honor the treaties that made so many guarantees and when it comes to health, the consequences of that neglect are now highly visible.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) said while attempting to pass a bill on diabetes in Indian country, “On average, American Indians are two times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than other ethnicities. And once they have diabetes, their rate of kidney failure is nearly double the national average. It is compounded by the fact that nearly 30 percent live in poverty, many of them in rural areas with limited access to healthcare. There are some pockets of Indian Country where the rate of the disease is as high as 60 percent of the population.”

The Trump administration is in the process of further cutting of the funds allocated to the Indian Health Service and this is a bad omen to a people already suffering from a life expectancy far below that of other Americans. Thousands of Native Americans are dying from diabetes every year and if there ever was a disease that could be called an epidemic, to the American Indian it is diabetes.

Contact Tim Giago at najournalist1@gmail.com. Tim if the founder of the Native American Journalist Association and the founder of Indian Country Today newspaper. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991.