November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the traditions and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native Americans. This month is also an opportune time to raise awareness about the serious prevalence of diabetes in Native American communities.
Why is this so important? Because at nearly 16.1 percent, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest age-adjusted prevalence of diabetes among all U.S. racial and ethnic groups. The death rate due to diabetes for Native Americans is 1.6 times higher compared with the general U.S. population.
I myself have a strong family history of diabetes. My father, grandparents, several aunts, uncles and cousins all have or had diabetes. I’ve witnessed complications such as amputations, kidney damage and vision problems.
I know that complications do not have to be a part of living with diabetes. I work as the diabetes care center program manager at the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center in Ada, Okla., promoting the message to patients that it’s possible to live a long and healthy life with diabetes.
As chair for Awakening the Spirit, the American Diabetes Association’s Native American program, I help develop and distribute educational materials and participate in advocacy activities to spread the word about diabetes in our community. Right now, our committee’s main focus is advocating for reauthorization of the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI), which gives Indian health programs and tribal communities the resources and tools they need to both prevent and treat diabetes.
Along with this, our Native American Initiative Subcommittee helps promote the Association’s Living Well With Type 2 Diabetes program, as 95 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives with diabetes have type 2 (as opposed to type 1). We’re also partners with the National Diabetes Education Program and attend events in Native communities to provide educational materials on diabetes.
I recently met with the Association’s Oklahoma City staff at the Oklahoma Inter-Tribal Diabetes Coalition, where we agreed to work together to encourage other tribes in the area to get involved. To do this, we hosted a Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes this past Saturday, Nov. 3, at the East Central University campus in Ada, Okla. We had great support from the community with more than 400 walkers and almost $35,000 raised. Our speakers and presenters included university President John R. Hargrave, Valley View Regional Hospital CEO Kent Rogers and Dr. Judy Goforth Parker, the Chickasaw Nation Division of Health Administrator. We hope this event gets bigger each year and continues to be an annual event.
Serving as chair for the Association’s Native American Initiative Subcommittee has allowed me to expand beyond my community to help serve others with diabetes. I am very fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful organization. We continue in the fight against diabetes this American Diabetes Month® and Native American Heritage Month by working with the Indian Country Media Today Network, a national multimedia company reaching all tiers of the 565 recognized tribes and Alaskan Natives, in an online campaign to keep spreading awareness of diabetes within our communities.
It is with great stress that I ask Native people to gain the knowledge to prevent type 2 diabetes and to live a long, healthy life with diabetes. On a spiritual level, we understand we are responsible for taking care of our bodies first. Positive lifestyle choices can help our families, our communities and ourselves.
Visit the Association’s website to learn more about their Native American programs. And to learn more about the prevalence of diabetes in Native American communities, visit the Indian Health Service website. You can also check out the Chickasaw Nation network for videos about this diabetes epidemic.
Shondra McCage, MPH
Chair, Native American Initiatives Subcommittee
American Diabetes Association