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Mainstreet Radio’s Dan Gunderson reports on a pilot project on White Earth Reservation that is trying to reduce the effects of diabetes by bringing back a diet of traditional food.

Research shows more than one in three American Indians in Minnesota will get diabetes. They are also more likely to suffer serious side effects.


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DAN GUNDERSON: 83-year-old Margaret Smith doesn't have time to sit and talk. She has a van full of food to deliver around the sprawling reservation. Margaret says she found her diabetes was much easier to control when she ate a traditional diet that included a lot of wild rice and hominy corn. She set out to convince others to change their diet.

MARGARET SMITH: I don't know. I just had to go and find these people myself. I go to one place. And they'd say, well, so-and-so is diabetic, too. So that's how I found everybody. I found 175 people.

DAN GUNDERSON: Margaret is the catalyst and engine for this project. She puts on hundreds of miles, delivering 175 sacks of food every month to elders across the reservation. It takes about two weeks. She also makes the 175 jars of jam that are part of each month's food package. And she has to face treacherous roads and occasionally inhospitable dogs.


MARGARET SMITH: Hi, I got-- I'm afraid of your dogs.

HARRY: You're afraid of the dogs? Jeez, I got to do this. I have to get going.


HARRY: I hope that works.

MARGARET SMITH: I got the food for you.

HARRY: You have?


DAN GUNDERSON: Harry shoos the dogs away and helps Margaret Smith pack another sack of buffalo meat, wild rice, hominy corn, jam, maple syrup, and fresh roasted coffee.

HARRY: I think it's really nice. It sure is. It is a real good program. I like it. I really do. We eat a lot of hominy. We eat wild rice. We drink a lot of coffee, too. It's really good, too, I tell you. I love that maple syrup, too.

DAN GUNDERSON: Harry says his wife has diabetes. He thinks the traditional native foods help keep her healthy.

HARRY: Thanks a lot.

DAN GUNDERSON: Back on the road, Margaret talks about the toll diabetes takes on people on the reservation. She can think of 10 people who have succumbed to the disease in recent months. Dozens suffer from serious complications. Margaret says diabetes was not a health issue when she was growing up.

MARGARET SMITH: We had a good diet-- rice, deer meat, and ducks, and fish, all that stuff we had to live on.

DAN GUNDERSON: But poverty and government food programs have transformed the diet of many American Indians. They eat primarily cheap processed foods. Obesity is at epidemic levels.

Margaret Smith has been delivering food packages only two months. But already, people are asking to be added to the list. It's estimated there are some 600 diabetics on the reservation. Margaret has to turn people away every week. There's no funding to expand the program.

MARGARET SMITH: I'm starting this program on a prayer and a shoestring.

DAN GUNDERSON: White Earth Land Recovery Project founder Winona LaDuke administers the Mino Miijim or Good Food Program.

WINONA LADUKE: We started it with probably around $20,000 of leftover money that we had for some food. And we got some money in from the Lutheran church and the Presbyterians. I'm incredibly thankful for that start. But I need $100,000 to run this program.

DAN GUNDERSON: The Land Recovery Project harvests the wild rice, hominy corn, maple syrup, and berries used in the food distribution. In a recent milestone of sorts, a buffalo was butchered to provide meat.

WINONA LADUKE: I cried and cried when we killed that buffalo. I cried, and my son was there. I sang a little song for that buffalo. I sang, and we prayed. But that buffalo went to feed our old people.

DAN GUNDERSON: LaDuke also hopes to introduce traditional foods into the school lunch programs on the reservation. She says there's a chance to prevent diabetes in the next generation. She says research proves that traditional diet reduces the incidence of diabetes and the complications caused by the disease.

Diabetes experts say diet and exercise are critical to controlling diabetes. LaDuke says state and federal governments could see significant health care cost reductions on the reservation if there's even a partial return to traditional foods. She says Indian people will benefit physically and spiritually from eating the foods the Creator intended for them. Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio, White Earth.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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