Native Americans work to escape the clutches of a diabetes epidemic

As young girls raised on Native American reservations, Rhonda LeValdo and Teresa Trumbly Lamsam grew up with at least two certainties.

One, they were born into cultures rich in storytelling.

Two — which they now hope to help change using the first — Native Americans suffer and often die of diabetes.

“It seemed inevitable,” said Lamsam, 50, a visiting professor in journalism at the University of Kansas who grew up on an Osage reservation at Pawhuska, Okla. “You’re going to get older. You’re going to get diabetes because you’re Indian. When I saw complications, I used to think, ‘I wonder how long before they lose their feet?’ Amputations were so common.”

So it was for LeValdo, 37, a member of the Acoma Pueblo from New Mexico, a media instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University and president of the Native American Journalists Association.

“I have had diabetes run through my family,” she said. “I’ve lost an aunt and three uncles now. My uncle recently passed away at the end of October. He was in his 50s.”

Although the problem of Type 2 diabetes — a chronic blood-sugar disease often triggered by obesity — is epidemic among Native Americans, Lamsam and LeValdo set out to help. Two weeks ago, they launched WellboundStorytellers.com, a website that in its first few days invited Native American journalists to share personal testimonials about their health struggles and successes.

Within days, hits on the site came from far and wide, with Native Americans from Kansas to Hawaii to Alaska asking that the site be opened to Native American bloggers, too, in addition to the professional writers.

“We have a Hawaiian guy who is working on the website. I have an educator and filmmaker who say they want to be part of it,” Lamsam said. “They are all on health journeys and they want to share and receive support.”

In one recent post, LeValdo told the story of her ancestors, many of whom were avid runners. She told of how “we had a garden, we grew crops, made our own foods, and I ran”

Then, as she got older, she saw sodium-laden fast foods and microwavable meals replace fresh foods. “I saw my relatives, now older, becoming diabetic, having heart disease and some passing on.”

She wrote, “Something clicked. I have two small children and I didn’t want to leave them early.”

Always a runner, LeValdo raised her family to be runners, too. Nearly every morning, at 6 a.m. before school, she and her husband, Denny Gayton, and their son, Hepanna, 7, and daughter, Winona, 10, leave their home and head to the stadium at Haskell. LeValdo and her husband jog 1.5 miles to the school while the children ride their bikes. At the stadium, they all run 1.5 miles around the track before going another 1.5 miles home.

LeValdo is training for a marathon. Her children have competed in kids’ triathlons.

Lamsam and LeValdo aren’t kidding themselves. They know a small website is not going to turn around the collective poor health of some 3.5 million Native Americans.

On virtually every health measure Native Americans and Pacific Islanders rank at or next to the bottom, just above African-Americans, among all races.

“Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, suicide rates,” said Darryl Tonemah, a Native American health psychologist of Kiowa, Comanche and Tuscarora descent who works on Indian diabetes program as a board member of the American Diabetes Association.

Some 15 percent of Native Americans age 18 or older suffer diabetes, according to national numbers, compared to 11.4 percent for African-Americans, 11 percent for Hispanics, 8 percent for Asians, and 7.1 percent for non-Hispanic white people.

More Native Americans, 18 percent, report being in fair to poor health than do African-Americans (14.9 percent), or Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (12.6 percent), whites (8.9 percent) or Asians (8.2 percent).

Exactly why Native Americans suffer more is complex.

“It is not as simple as blaming the victim,” Tonemah said. “You look at a group that has been traumatized by colonization, put on reservations, given high-carbohydrate, high-fat, high-calorie foods and then left with limited opportunities to change that. You think, ‘How does that affect that group?’ We get to 2012 and it’s hard to break that cycle.”

LeValdo and Lamsam didn’t originally set out to change anything. Lamsam, who came to KU as a visiting professor from the University of Nebraska in Omaha, said their website developed as an outgrowth of journalism research she had been doing on the mainstream media’s coverage of a federal initiative known as the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.

Part of the balanced budget act of 1997, the program — currently funded at about $150 million — has poured about $1.5 billion over the last 15 years into battling diabetes in Native American communities.

Lamsam’s goal was not to judge the effectiveness of the program run by the Indian Health Service. The controversial diabetes program has posted some successes, such as raising awareness among Native Americans along with a 13 percent reduction in average blood sugar in the community over 10 years and a 17 percent decrease in levels of bad cholesterol. Such decreases help to reduce consequences of diabetes such as heart disease and vascular problems that lead to amputations.

But, overall, the rate of diabetes among Native Americans has only increased, just as it has in the general U.S. population given the epidemic in obesity.

During the research, LeValdo lost her uncle to complications from diabetes, and she and Lamsam decided to start the website, making the turn from unbiased, journalistic research to journalism activism.

“We thought we needed to be role models,” Lamsam said.

In keeping with the Native American tradition, they decided to share their own stories. Now others are doing the same.

“I want to inspire people, but I also want to keep myself motivated,” said Stacy Braiuca, 43, a blogger of Native American heritage from Raytown who works on Native American health affairs at the University of Kansas Hospital.

Admittedly overweight, Braiuca said she hoped that publicly blogging about her efforts to lose weight not only would spur other Native Americans to do the same, but also would hold her accountable.

“It is very public,” she said. “I am hoping that six months from now I can look back at the entries and see how my health has changed.”

The link between health and storytelling, she said, makes the website a natural.

“We call it the Moccasin telegraph,” Braiuca said. “The Native community is very interconnected. It is small, but it is huge. If I put something out there on the Internet, someone 10 states away is going to know about it in like three minutes.”