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Health on the Hill, Multimedia Stories

Haskell Indian Nations University fights diabetes in Native American population

Fred Gipp pounded his feet on the bricks until his feet hurt. His performance outside the Kansas Union on Thursday attracted the attention of students and passersby. Gipp danced to promote a powwow he will perform in next year.

He said he dances to stay in shape. And it’s important that Gipp stays in shape.

Gipp, who is half Native American, dances to combat obesity. He has a family history with adult onset diabetes, and he wants to break the cycle.

“I know how it’s in my family, so it’s probably in me,” Gipp said. “I don’t know for sure though. I don’t have diabetes right now. Hopefully it’ll stay like that.”

Spreading awareness to Native Americans

As the national rate of diabetes among Americans climbs, the rate skyrockets among Native Americans in particular. According to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17.5 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native adults have been diagnosed with diabetes.

Diabetes is more prevalent among Native Americans than any other minority in the United States, and more than twice as common as diabetes is in white adults. Other minorities included in the CDC study were black adults (11.8 percent with diabetes,) Hispanic adults (10.6 percent) and Asian adults (8.0 percent.) Only 6.6 percent of white adults have diabetes.

Gipp is part Apache and Comanche, and he is one of many in a younger generation of Native Americans hoping to change these statistics.

“Being aware of the fact that diabetes does run in our family – so having that knowledge – makes it ultimately a significant factor,” Gipp said. “We’re able to be more active because of the awareness.” November happens to be both Native American Heritage Month and Diabetes Awareness Month.

The root of the problem

As of 2010, 25.8 million children and adults living in the United States – 8.3 percent of the population – had diabetes. In people 20 years old and older, 1.9 million new cases of diabetes were diagnosed in 2010. According to the American Diabetes Association, 79 million people in the United States are prediabetic.

The increasing prevalence of diabetes in the United States directly correlates with the obesity pandemic. According to data from the CDC, 33.3 percent of American adults age 20 years and over are overweight, but not obese; another 35.9 of adults age 20 years and over are obese.

Though Americans as a whole are suffering greatly from obesity and diabetes, Native Americans struggle with both on a larger scale.

Christy Blissett, the director of the Diabetes Prevention Program at Haskell Indian Nations University, said the “Western way of eating” is to blame for the prevalence of diabetes in Native Americans.

“A lot of ethnicities have gotten away from eating their traditional diet,” Blissett said, “and a lot of Native Americans, their traditional diet consists of lean meats; it consists of fruits and vegetables.”

Brett Ramey, a tribal health liaison with the department of family medicine at the KU Medical Center, said he thinks the U.S. government played a role in changing Native Americans’ diets.

“Government policies over the years imposed a lot of really unhealthy foods onto our reservations from the very beginning of relocation programs and the very beginning of colonization of this continent,” Ramey said. “There are reasons why we have less access to healthy foods than we used to that in turn lead primarily to diabetes.”

On its website, Native American Aid, an organization that works to improve living conditions for Native Americans, also places blame on the government for contributing to the downward spiral of Native Americans’ health.

“The United States government began removing Indian people from their traditional lands, assigning all Native Americans to reservations. Taken from the land that once met all of their needs, Native American people now live on isolated reservations, some miles away from basic necessities such as stores and medical facilities. Usually, the only nearby shop carries mostly junk food. The reservation land is so barren that it’s a struggle to get any crops to grow.”

Preventative action

Ramey is the designer of a wild garden plot at Haskell that promotes the return to healthy diets for Native Americans. The Kansas City Star recently wrote about the class at Haskell that runs the garden. Ramey said he hopes the garden will encourage long-term healthy behavior among Native Americans.

“There are a lot of really good initiatives happening to reverse [the unhealthy diets,]” Ramey said, “in particular at Haskell.”

Ramey teaches a course aimed at revitalizing the growth of traditional foods on the Haskell campus. By growing healthy, “culturally relevant” food on campus, Ramey said he hopes diabetes rates will decrease.

Blissett said programs such as the garden at Haskell encourage Native Americans to change their eating habits.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of Natives are really, really trying to get back to their traditional diet to improve their health,” Blissett said.

Haskell Health Center’s Diabetes Prevention Program works with students and faculty who are at risk of contracting diabetes to make lifestyle changes that decrease their chances of becoming diabetic.

“One of the goals in our grant this year was to try to target the younger population ages 18-30 because we do see risk factors in the community and in the campus,” Blissett said. “A lot of it is just because of the diet of a lot of college students. It consists of a lot of processed foods, a lot of fast food, a lot of sugary beverages and things like that.”

Blissett said the program has helped more than 1,000 people since its inception, and she wants to see the program continue its success.

“Our hope is just to keep getting the word out so the program can continue to grow and we can continue to help other Native Americans who are at risk for diabetes.”


Haskell is not the only university in Lawrence, Kansas becoming proactive about diabetes in Native Americans. A new addition to the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas revolves around communication with minorities on health-related issues. The Center for Excellence in Health Communication to Underserved Populations (CEHCUP,) headed by Mugur Geana, will soon begin working on strategically communicating with Native Americans to effectively inform them about diabetes management and prevention.

TARA BRYANT: A new addition to the University of Kansas School of Journalism is the Center for Excellence in Health Communication to Underserved Populations. Doctor Mugur Geana is the director of CEHCUP. One of the focuses of the center is finding the right way to communicate diabetes management and prevention strategies to Native Americans.

DR. MUGUR GEANA: You can tell somebody to do something all day, unless they really don’t want to do it, or they feel that information is relevant for them, or they are going to have a benefit out of using that information, than you won’t have too much success. So, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to tailor that information to their specific needs, and to tailor that information that will be culturally appropriate so they can resonate with it and they can use it.

TB: Doctor Geana says he hopes CEHCUP’s efforts will help more than just those who are at risk for diabetes.

MG: I don’t know how much we will be able to impact those currently suffering from diabetes, but hopefully we will be able to impact future generations in terms of seeing a decrease of American Indians with diabetes in the long run.

TB: This is Tara Bryant for Health on the Hill.

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