June 20, 2003

Traditional wampum carries message of health


QUEBEC – Since it left Joe Jacob’s home in Kahnawake, Quebec, the Diabetes Wampum Belt has been carried by walkers, bicyclists, canoes and runners across 1,500 miles, through more than a dozen communities, carrying its message of strength. It’s been estimated the belt could take about 300 years to make its rounds and return to where it originated.

“It carries good words, strong words,” said Jacobs.

Wampum Belt Picture
Photo courtesty of Robert Clinton via Flicker. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The project began in Jacob’s sleep when, in 1996, his dreams were riddled with images of people gathering around a messenger and the words “our blood is sweet.” When he understood it to mean he needed to take a message of diabetes awareness to neighboring communities, he followed the example of his Mohawk ancestors who used wampum to pass on the word.

Jacobs, who does not have diabetes but has family members with the disease, spent hours cutting the white plastic from an electrical wire to make hundreds of half-inch long beads. He also made his own loom and, using nylon and cat sinew, created the purple and white belt that says, “Teiakonekwenhsatsikhe:tare” (our blood is sweet).

When it was finished in 1997, Jacobs and a group of about 30 others carried the belt on a two-day walk from Kahnawake to Akwesasne, New York. Several months later, bicyclists carried it 120 miles to Tyendinaga, Ontario, where it visited schools and meetings before being walked two days to Alderville, then on a 10-hour walk from Alderville to Hiawatha, Ontario, then to Curve Lake.

Communities receiving the belt keep it working several months in schools, health and community centers, longhouses and conferences before carrying it to the next community.

Each nation adds its own words and community name in its own language to the deerskin in beadwork or paint with the date it was re-wrapped in the deerskin hide to be taken to the next community.

“One of our teachings is to take care of the next seven generations,” Jacobs said. “I don’t want us to lose sight of that.”

According to Health Canada, the rate of diabetes among Aboriginal people in Canada is three to five times higher than that of the general population. About 2 million Canadians have diabetes, at an estimated cost of $9 million annually to treat. One-third of those are unaware they have the disease, silently succumbing to amputation, blindness, heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.

By 1998, the U.S. Indian Health Service found 8 percent hypertension and cardiovascular disease among 2,800 Native Americans. Diabetes increased 3.4 percent per 100,000 from 1979 to 1981. In the 1994 to 1996 study, diabetes jumped 6.5 percent to 8.4 percent. The two leading health problems for Community Health Representatives contacts in 1998 were reported as health promotion/disease prevention and diabetes.

Due to loss of culture, diabetes has been victimizing American Indians more so than smallpox did. Fishing in the polluted rivers is prohibitive in many places. Fresh fish was not affordable daily and soon replaced by boxes of processed foods. By the 20th century 85 percent of the food on the grocery store shelves were genetically engineered.

“It’s a growing epidemic. Twenty percent of aboriginal people are effected,” said Alex M. McComber, executive director of the Kahnawake School Diabetes Project.

The rates of diagnosis are soaring, the age of onset continues to drop and the physical complications effect emotion, mind and spirit, McComber said.

With diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin, or cannot use the insulin it produces. The three main types are Type 1 when the body makes little or no insulin; Type 2 when the body makes insulin but cannot use it properly; and gestational diabetes, when the body is not able to properly use insulin during pregnancy.

Type 2, which encompasses nine out of 10 diabetic cases, has no cure but is preventable with diet and lifestyle changes.

“It takes a whole community mobilization,” said McComber. “Some schools have begun to screen the children. But often, people don’t know when they have it until they begin feeling its effects.”

The community efforts are recorded in Jacob’s green and gray scrapbook where the wampum’s journey is seen with a youth riding an old bicycle on a cold sunny afternoon, carrying the wampum in a backpack. Carloads of elders arrive, smiling, hugging and acknowledging the effort.

Teens, small children, grandmothers and fathers gather with more than 100 people from Delaware, Ojibway, Chippewa, Potawatami, Ottawa and Oneida walking the belt across a bridge to be met by a west wind, gathering in a circle around a fire to witness drums and singing, smoke from sage and tobacco. Jacobs speaks thanksgiving words, thereby building unity in communities.

By June 1, 2002 the Oneida carried the belt on a two-day bicycle ride to Moraviantown, where 75 percent of the estimated 800 person population has diabetes.

It was taken by canoe to the New Fairfield Moravian Church where the support group served a dinner of roast beef and turkey. From there it was walked to the community center where a crowd was waiting.

Currently the belt is at Walpole Island. It will be carried by water to Sarina, Ontario on June 21.

Since it began, Jacobs has spent his summers on the road. With no outside funding, he has received help from supporters such as Norman Achneepineskum, an Ojibway artist from Thunder Bay, who donated four paintings to be raffled for money to rent vans for Jacobs and a group of volunteers to travel to the communities. He says thoughts of the children’s future keep him motivated.

“This disease is real to our children,” said Jacobs. “They’ve seen what it does to family members. Our leaders need to open their eyes and hearts and slow this disease.”


AUTHOR: Christine Graef, Correspondent, Indian Country Today

©2003 Indian Country Today

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