In Bemidji, you do not need a calendar to know when the first day of the month is. When you go to get groceries at Walmart at this time, it is similar to a Black Friday-esque experience; the parking lots are as packed as the aisles, shoulder-to-shoulder. Witnessing this, it made me wonder why there seems to be a lack of access to grocery stores nearby, specifically on reservations. Along with this, it makes you wonder as to if there is a correlation between this fact and the high rates of diabetes type 2 among Native Americans. I think there is.
Evidence suggests that the nutrition environment on Native American reservations is characterized by few supermarkets and many gas station-type stores, a moderate availability of fresh produce, and a reliance on off-reservation stores for regular or bulk shopping. The lack of healthier options available on reservations has a direct correlation to the higher rate of diabetes; how is someone supposed to have a healthy diet if there is nothing healthy available within a reasonable distance?
Gas stations and small grocery stores rarely have healthy fruit and vegetable options, and if they do, they are much more expensive when compared to a large grocery store chain. Ultimately, this makes the possibility of a healthy diet very slim, and expensive at that. When we adjust our lifestyles from a more sedentary and unhealthy way of life to an active and more fruitful one, it can come with a hefty price tag. This is even more so if you are living somewhere with little to no access to healthy resources necessary to make these changes.
It is easy to displace the blame and say that heredity is to blame for high rates of diabetes among Native American people, but is that really the case? Native Americans do not have the proper access to healthy and culturally-appropriate foods, and are thus at a higher risk of the development of diabetes and it is not always necessarily due to heredity.
As of recently, studies have shown that the rate of diagnosed diabetes among all Indian Health Service (IHS) patients was 6.9 percent, which is almost three times the rate among all races in the United States. This is not just a mere coincidence; there is some reason why this rate is so high. Race specifically plays little to no role in the rates of diabetes; statistics show that some races are more likely to have or develop diabetes type 2, but that is mainly due to other outside factors, such as living situation, stress and finances.
You may be asking yourself: “Why should I care? It is the responsibility of the people to take care of themselves.” And yes it is true, we must take care of ourselves. But how is one supposed to do so if they are put into a position that makes it extremely difficult to do so? One can only do so much. Just try to put yourself in a position such as this and try to imagine yourself successfully living a healthy life with a good diet. Sounds near impossible, right? Because it is.
Not enough research is being done on Native American populations. Native Americans are often dismissed when research is involved because with smaller populations it is more difficult to get “statistically significant” data. This often leaves a lot of room for problems, as there are health trends within the population that are not being studied or even acknowledged. We need to bridge this gap and continue to do these studies in order to keep our entire population healthy, regardless of our differences. We must support our fellow people in making sure they have access to the resources necessary in order to live long and healthy lives.
Sydney Preston is a Biology and Public Health double-major student at Hamline University in St. Paul. Born and raised in Kelliher, she spent a good portion of her time in Bemidji, which included the weekly shopping trip at Walmart.