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September 02, 2014  
WOUND NEWS: Feature Story

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  • Diabetes And The Navajo Way

    Diabetes And The Navajo Way


    June 18, 2007

    By: Jean Johnson for Wounds1

    Navajo healing ceremonies have long been a source of interest to psychologists and psychiatrists, scores of whom regularly troop out to the Navajo Nation for summer sabbaticals in the hope of finding a medicine man or woman who will share some of their wisdom.
    Take Action
    Just like Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison tells his people, try to eat wholesome foods and get a lot of physical activity. Here are a few tips that honor the Navajo Way and are relatively accessible to people in non-native cultures:
  • Empty out the sugar bowl, and if you must keep it on the table, put a nice green plant in it.
  • Drink water. Steer clear of canned sodas.
  • Eat seasonal fruit as your sweets.
  • Consider passing on artificial sweeteners. For some, these fake foods simply fan the old sugar flames, keeping the desire alive.
  • Ride a horse.
  • Go on foot. Is there an opportunity here to combine the chores of everyday life with the activity that our bodies need to stay healthy?

  • Science has enabled modern medicine to make major strides in understanding physiological and anatomical processes of the body. The Navajo tradition, on the other hand, tends to use songs, teas, and gatherings to purge illness. But when the diagnosis is diabetes, which is historically unknown to the Navajo yet has grown 50 percent in the last decade, what is the role of their medicine? How does a Navajo approach care for the 14 to 15 percent of adult Navajos who have diabetes? More, how do non-Navajos interested in alternative and complementary ways of healing beyond mainstream medicine sift through the information and arrive at reasonable interventions?

    A Navajo Medicine Man Shares His Thoughts

    Johnson Dennison, a traditional native healer for close to 30 years – who also holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Albuquerque, was a former high school principal, and currently coordinates the Office of Native Medicine at the Chinle Comprehensive Care Facility at Chinle, Arizona in the Navajo Nation – has some thoughts on the matter.

    “A Navajo perspective on diabetes is that it’s a change of lifestyle disease,” Dennison says. His clipped Navajo accent is full of abrupt glottal stops common to the Navajo language, and his dark brown eyes look off in a polite direction.

    “Long ago people rode horses, walked, and were eating organic food – and not plenty of food. There were not a lot of conveniences, and people pretty much lived a healthy lifestyle.”

    Dennison is talking about the days before trading posts started springing up in the mid-1800s. Even after the trading posts were established, the cold bottles of strawberry pop that Navajos flocked in to drink were reserved for occasional treats with the family. Sweet melons growing in the fields were the main source of sugar.

    Reclaiming Power over Life and Health

    “That’s one thing we did a few years ago,” Rosie Begay, a mother and teacher at Rock Point Community School says. “Plant melons. That way the kids just went for those and quit wanting to always get pop and candy at the trading post.”

    In addition to trade-offs between processed food and natural, seasonal foods grown right at the door step, Dennison is also harkening back to the days when Navajos lived in their family’s sheep camps, residences that were widely scattered and self-reliant. Traveling by foot or on horseback for close distances was the favored mode of transportation – and remained so throughout much of the twentieth century, with trucks beyond the financial reach of many Navajos.

    In sum, Navajos had a buffer between the forces of corporate food production and their culture. However, now that the twenty-first century is well under way, the Navajo people have gained access to the cash economy and traded in the soft layers of shredded cedar bark lining cradleboards for things like disposable diapers.

    From “Lazy” to “Improving”

    “People have gone lazy and are sitting around too much,” Dennison says, not at all shy about identifying a problem among his people. “Also, the food that we eat now is not organic any more.”

    “The lifestyle has changed so much,” he muses. “So in that way, the universe is teaching us by using illness to wake us up. It’s trying to tell us to not be lazy and to improve ourselves.”

    Thus, those coming to the clinic at Chinle these days will encounter a hand-painted sign. “Our ancestors ate fresh vegetables. Beat diabetes. Stay slim.”

    Surely the missive will call up images of traditional Navajo men and women, their tall, long-boned torsos in brilliant velveteen shirts studded with sliver buttons, their bodies lean and their faces and hands leathered and worn.

    Dennison has not missed the parallels between his evaluation of the problem and that of mainstream medicine. “When it really comes down to it, you begin to start hearing almost the same tome when they talk about these things in western medicine and when Navajo medicine men and women talk about it.”

    The Sugar Disease

    On the other hand, Dennison points out that in the Navajo world view, just talking about bad things can make them happen. Consequently, Navajos can come away from seeing a mainstream physician entirely upset and unwilling to trust western medicine further to manage their diabetes. That’s a problem because diabetes is a modern disease and traditional healers are relatively unfamiliar with it.

    “There is a lack of understanding of the illness among the traditional healers,” Dennison told the New York Times. “Diabetes is not a Navajo illness. It’s called the sugar disease in Navajo. People believe table sugar is the cause, but it’s in the pancreas. Explaining how the pancreas and the kidneys and other organs function is difficult.”

    Navajo Philosophy Concerning Dire Pronouncements

    “In times of illness, patients would feel depressed and hopeless. As a native practitioner, it is a custom to talk to your patient in the most positive way,” writes Dennison in an article on spiritual perspectives for The (Gallup) Independent. “When a person is ill, it is a social custom not to talk about death or any further complications. This can become a problem for a Navajo diabetic patient when diagnosed with diabetes at a clinic.”

    Dennison goes on to explain that “When informing a Navajo patient about diabetes complications, he or she could first be reassured of the positive outlook of his or her life. This will give him or her the strength to face the diagnosis.”

    Keeping a positive outlook is good advice. As others who have gone before know, once a patient has been diagnosed with diabetes, his or her future is highly dependent on self-care – and it’s a lot easier to focus on good food and exercise when feeling positive.

    Last updated: 18-Jun-07

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