Come. Sit with me a moment. I want to tell you a story.
In the outside world, they'll soon be celebrating Halloween, with their ghosts and goblins and witches and other scary creatures.
We have our own creature, but he's not just scary. He's dangerous.
Winter is coming, and soon, it will be the season of the Windigo.
You see, the Windigo is a giant monster made of ice. Where his heart should be, it's solid ice, so he doesn't care about anything or anyone except what he wants. And where his stomach should be, it's solid ice, so he's always hungry.
And the Windigo is a cannibal.
You see, once the Windigo was human, like us. But he got greedy, and he turned away from the people and our teachings. As he became more evil, he grew and grew, into a powerful giant. But that kind of power comes with a terrible price, and Gichi Manitou turned him into a creature made entirely of ice, cold and starving, never to be warm again, never to be filled. And the Windigo hungers not merely for human flesh and bones; he feeds off human spirits, too.
So when when the snows come, when the people are cold and hungry and frightened, that's when the Windigo comes. Because he knows that we are easier prey. And the only thing powerful enough to fight a Windigo is another Windigo. So if he comes, the only way to defeat him is is to become one yourself. But you must be careful: If you go Windigo for too long, you will not be able to find your way back to human form.
What happens when your hunger eats you up from the inside?
A MODERN-DAY WINDIGO
As with virtually all of our traditional stories, the story of the Windigo works on multiple levels. Our elders have long kept the younger generations in line by telling them that the Windigo will come and get you if you're bad, and eat you up.
But the Windigo is not just a bogeyman for Shinob children. In our tradition, the Windigo is an actual spirit being, formerly human, both practitioner and result of maji-mashkiki (bad medicine) - a monster in corporeal form that consumes not only human bodies, but human spirits, as well. For adults, it's a cautionary tale of what can happen when you decide to do evil, or when you fail to guard against evil's presence.
As the story says, they say that the only way to defeat a Windigo is to become one yourself. But beware: If you go Windigo, you may not be able to come back. It's the Shinob version of the warning against gazing too long into the abyss. It's only for the spiritually strong, like our spiritual elders - or for the pure of heart, like the little girl who defeated one by convincing her terrified grandmother to melt tallow, and as the child grew to the great monster's height, she stretched out her arms, coated with tallow, to melt the beast.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that this is some mythical artifact of the distant past. This creature still haunts our people; whether in physical or metaphorical form I leave to the perceptions of each individual. I will point out that reports of the Windigo's appearance increase in times of unrest, though it's unclear whether, most times, the monster causes the unrest or is drawn by it. I tend toward the latter explanation. Particularly since the Windigo is a cautionary tale on another level, as well: a caution against excessive hunger - for anything.
If we heed the lessons of this particular story, we know to shun greed and other forms of evil, lest we find our spirits cast in ice, starving, never warm, never filled.
But what happens when your body is literally hungry, every minute of every day?
Have you ever been truly hungry? I don't mean feeling your stomach growl because you overslept and had to skip breakfast. I don't mean that nagging craving for something that doesn't happen to be in your fridge. I mean true HUNGER, in screaming capital letters and bold type: that hollow place just beneath your ribcage, that internal abyss, so void that it becomes a living thing, gnawing at your insides, crying out for sustenance, engulfing body and soul, until you can see and hear and feel nothing but HUNGER. I'm talking about the physical, psychological, and spiritual starvation caused by real poverty and real malnutrition. I'm talking about something our peoples battle every single day, all over this country - mostly unnoticed by a comparatively wealthy population that wouldn't care anyway.
I have. Rarely, thankfully; but I have.
For my father, it was his constant childhood companion.
And for a criminally large percentage of Native America, adults and children alike, it remains a constant companion today.
Last year, I recounted some of my father's experiences with hunger. I'm not going to rehash all of that here; if you missed it and really want the gory details, it's in the diary linked above. I'll just reiterate how much Dad hated rice. Too often, as a child, it was all there was to eat; some days, it was the solitary component of the family's one meal. And when I say "solitary component," I mean exactly that: no butter, no salt, no pepper. Just plain white rice. (For some odd reason, he still liked the Great Northern white beans so popular in our part of the country, despite the fact that equally often, and equally unsalted, they comprised his only meal. Personally, I'd have preferred the rice.)
My situation was less dire, and probably closer to what [too many] Indian children today experience. There was usually enough food, but often not enough good food, in terms of either flavor or nutritional value. There are still foods that I won't eat, for the same reasons as my father. Breakfast was usually cheap dry cereal in milk. By ten o'clock every morning, I was starving and utterly unable to concentrate in school. Mom and Dad were forever trying to lose weight, so at times, in their misguided attempts to "eat healthier," we'd have virtually the same dinner night after night after night: a ground beef patty, plain, with cottage cheese and canned applesauce and/or canned peas. Why? Because it was cheap - about as cheap as it gets. It was also processed down to the last molecule, and full of all kinds of unhealthy crap. And butter? Are you kidding? It was margarine (or what, in our part of the world, most folks called "oleo"). My gorge still rises just thinking about it.
Don't get me wrong; there were plenty of better times. But there were other times, darker times, when the fridge and cupboards were nearly bare. Times in my adult life like that, too. Times when you ration every bite in the hopes of making it stretch just a little longer - for another week until payday, or just through tomorrow, or maybe just so you'll have something, anything, you can call dinner tonight. HUNGER - the real, true, gnawing, tearing, murderous kind of constant hunger that destroys lives - only one generation removed from me, remains a part of my ancestral memory. I hope I never have to feel that gnawing, empty pain ever again. But it's why I believe so strongly that we have to eradicate hunger - in our Native communities, throughout our country, across the planet. Because no human being should have to feel that pain. Ever.
Author's Note: I've written previously about the problems of poverty and hunger in our Native communities. Rather than reinvent the medicine wheel, so to speak, some of the segments below include selected passages from those diaries, along with significant new content.
In addition, I'm going to highlight statistics and other information from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. I do this for two reasons: First, they comprise the most economically-disadvantaged demographic in the entire country right now, and provide a stark illustration of the results of 500+ years of European "Indian policies." Second, thanks to navajo's indefatigable efforts over the last two years, much of this community is already aware of the dire situation the residents of these two reservations face, and I'd like to help leverage her efforts. If you missed it, two nights ago, she kicked off this year's fundraising drive to keep our Lakota brothers and sisters from freezing to death. If you'd like to contribute toward heaters and/or propane for folks in desperate need of them, donation links are in the diary, here.
It's difficult to pin down statistics on hunger in Native America. We are the Invisible People, the Forgotten Ones. Hell, Feeding America's own report doesn't track it (although it does break down a few indicators by race). Courtesy of other research, however, what we do know is that Native Americans tend to face hunger at a rate of at least twice that of the country's overall population - and at three times the rate of White Americans. This means that, relevant to the statistical hook this blogathon is using, "1 in 6," we can reliably assume that at least 1 in 3 Native American adults, and 1 in 2 Native American children, goes hungry on a regular basis.
Think about that for a moment.
One in every three Native American adults goes hungry.
One in every two Native American children goes hungry.
In the United States. In 2011.
This is shameful. This is criminal. This is murderous.
HOW AND WHY
One of the most pernicious myths surrounding hunger in this country is the one that says that if you're overweight, you can't be going hungry. to the contrary, one of the most obvious manifestations of malnutrition is obesity, and it's rampant among our peoples. It's also killing us at a rate that rivals anything tried in previous centuries.
In 2003, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country. Pages 99-112 deal with issues of food and nutrition. The numbers - or, rather, the lack thereof in terms of funding allocations to help Native communities feed themselves - are staggering.
But it's part and parcel of a larger dynamic of poverty, racism, and marginalization.
I've written at length elsewhere about conditions at Pine Ridge. Here's a snapshot:
At Pine Ridge (like many other reservations), it is not unusual to find women as heads of household. Moreover, they're often housing and caring for multiple generations: children, grandchildren, sometimes great-grandchildren, as well as elderly parents or grandparents. Frequently, they take in uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and distant cousins who are in need. Large numbers of women are de facto guardians of and primary caregivers for their grandchildren. None of this is particularly surprising, given that the average household income is less than $3,800 a year.
Yes, you read that right: The average household income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is less than three thousand, eight hundred dollars annually.
Further complicating the situation are the inhumane living conditions on many reservations. I've seen statistics estimating the life expectancy of the average man at Pine Ridge between age 43 and age 48 - equivalent to that of the average Somali male. At a life expectancy of 52, Pine Ridge women don't fare much better. The reservation's unemployment rate exceeds 80%; its poverty rate is one of the worst in the nation; both chronic illness, such as diabetes, and acute illnesses, such as certain forms of cancer, appear at rates between 100% and 800% higher than in the nation as a whole; and the adolescent suicide rate is 150% higher than in the general U.S. population. Alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction long ago reached epidemic proportions.
We are a mere 100 years removed from living as hunter/gatherers, our ancestral methods of sustaining our peoples. Scientists often describe us as coming from "hunter-gatherer societies," and as having a "thrifty" genetic type, biologically engineered to store food as fat during times of plenty, to provide fuel and sustenance during extended periods when food was scarce, such as winter, drought, or migration. In other words, our bodies had adapted perfectly to our physical environment.
But with contact came the reservation.
With the reservation came deprivation: of our traditional hunting grounds, including the wanton destruction of the buffalo herds; of the environments where we harvested food, herbs, and medicine; of our ancestral lands when many of our tribes engaged in sophisticated farming and crop rotation practices; of access to many of our cultural and spiritual traditions and methods of healing.
And with the reservation came new dangers: of previously-unknown infectious agents and disease; of tobacco (not the old asemaa of our medicine persons, consisting of herbs such as red willow bark, bearberry, and mullein, but the modern asemaa of tar and nicotine); of alcohol (not the fermented medicine and ceremonial drinks of our ancestors, but whiskey, rum, and moonshine); of a diet restricted to non-indigenous foods, that would eventually become a diet consisting almost entirely of refined, processed foods low in protein and complex carbohydrates but high in simple carbs and trans fats.
And residents of modern reservations, with median household incomes well below the federal poverty line (often well below $10,000 per year) and with staggering rates of unemployment (as much as 86%), often must rely almost wholly on government welfare programs, including refined and processed commodity foods. Whole grains, fresh produce, and other healthy foods are far too expensive, and on many reservations, there are no grocery stores or markets that carry such items anyway. And over the years, refined ingredients have infiltrated the recipes for our traditional foods, so that here in the Southwest, for example, people have for decades used bleached, refined white flour in their tortillas - because it is both available and affordable. And thus is a staple of the traditional diet converted into an instrument of disease.
COMMODITIES, A/K/A "FDPIR"
The USDA operates the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). It is via this program that most reservations receive what we call "commodities" - a word that the government no longer considers "politically correct" because of the bad reputation associated with it. Think "government cheese": generic Velveeta. Generic canned foods. Processed, refined, bleached flour, sugar, rice, pasta, bread. Ground beef and other cheap meats from huge factory farms, riddled with growth hormone, antibiotics, and Spirit knows what else. Dietary crap, in other words.
The 2011 list of commodities available through FDPIR is available here. Here's a look at the list:
Look at those lists. What do you see?
Canned. Boxed. Packaged. Processed. And yet, all too often, all that stands between our people and literally starving to death.
Why? One major factor can be summed up in two words: Food deserts.
So what's a "food desert," anyway? The USDA has adopted the following as a working definition:
a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store[,] . . . [in which] at least 33 percent of the tract's population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.
"Low access" is defined as "more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas."
In more general lay terms, a food desert is basically a geographic area in which a poor population cannot feasibly get access to nutritionally-decent food on a regular basis. That's a frighteningly accurate description of far too many reservations. Reservation lands are frequently distant - often more than 100 miles - from the nearest town large enough to contain a supermarket. Local groceries often carry no fresh produce, and many can afford to maintain only a minimal inventory of the cheapest foods - in other words, refined and processed commercial products. Too many Native families have no reliable transportation, and even local markets are often not within walking distance. And perhaps most significantly, fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods are priced utterly out of range for families trying to get by on families trying desperately to subsist on less than $3,800 a year.
Courtesy of the USDA comes this map of food deserts in the continental United States:
Now, compare that map with the one below, showing tribal reservation lands in the continental U.S.:
Notice the correlation?
The overlap between tribal lands and food deserts is unmistakable. This is not to say that all food deserts are on reservations; far from it. But it's no accident that a significant proportion of tribal lands coincide with food deserts.
BROADER HEALTH IMPLICATIONS
Taking the long view, the hunger is almost the least of it. The human body can survive a great deal of discomfort, and [some of] our peoples have survived much worse than discomfort over the last five centuries. But hunger isn't just temporarily unpleasant sensation, alleviated entirely once you eat. Hunger - particularly sustained, long-term hunger - has extreme and terrible long-term effects.
In the brief discussion of Pine Ridge, above, I alluded to the comprehensive health crisis that jeopardizes our peoples' very existence. Nearly every major catastrophic health condition that plagues our communities today is traceable, at some point, to hunger and its effects.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health [OMH] compiles and maintains statistical data on health differences among various demographic populations. The data for Native Americans are frightening.
First, diabetes. One of the most pernicious myths surrounding hunger in this country is the one that says that if you're overweight, you can't be going hungry. To the contrary, one of the most obvious manifestations of malnutrition is obesity, and it's rampant among our peoples - as is its fellow traveler, diabetes. It's also killing us at a rate that rivals anything tried in previous centuries.
According to OMH:
* American Indian/Alaska Native adults were 2.3 times as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes.
* American Indians/Alaska Natives were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from diabetes in 2005.
* American Indian/Alaska Native adults were 1.6 times as likely as White adults to be obese.
* American Indian/Alaska Native adults were 1.3 times as likely as White adults to have high blood pressure.
Per OMH's numbers from 2005, American Indian/Alaska Native adults had a diabetes diagnosis rate of 16.5%. compared to 6.6% for non-Hispanic whites. The Pima in southern Arizona led the rate of diagnosis, at a staggering 29.3%. In practical terms, what these numbers mean is that Native Americans have the highest age-adjusted incidence of diabetes of any ethnic group. And these are just those who have been diagnosed. Thousands more go undiagnosed for years - often until they die from complications resulting from undiagnosed diabetes.
In 2006, diabetes was the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. However, Native Americans constitute a disproportionately high percentage of members of that particular demographic: Diabetes-related mortality rates are substantially higher in Native populations: 39.6 per 100,000, compared to 1.9 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic whites. Keep in mind, however, that these numbers are almost certainly much lower than the reality: A study of 1986 data found that, on death certificates, Native American ancestry was underreported at a rate of 65%. The same analysis concluded that diabetes was 4.3 times more likely to be the underlying cause of death for those listed on their death certificates as Native American than for whites.
Second, cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke.
We don't tend to think of heart disease as a product of hunger, but in fact, malnutrition plays a major role. Both obesity and diabetes are major risk factors for heart disease, and Native Americans are 1.4 times as likely as whites to be diagnosed with heart disease. They are also 1.3 times as likely to have high blood pressure, and 1/4 times as likely to smoke.
Indians also suffer a higher incidence of stroke:
* In general, American Indian/Alaska Native adults are 60% more likely to have a stroke than their White adult counterparts.
* American Indian/Alaska Native women have twice the rate of stroke than White women.
Third, cancer. When we think of cancer incidence, we tend to think of environmental causes. However, bodies weakened by hunger, malnutrition, and the resultant systemic inflammation are less able to cope with environmental and other dangers - or to survive after cancer develops.
* From 2001-2005, American Indian/Alaska Native men are twice as likely to have liver & IBD cancer as non-Hispanic White men.
* American Indian/Alaska Native men are 1.8 times as likely to have stomach cancer as non-Hispanic White men, and are over twice as likely to die from the same disease.
* American Indian/Alaska Native women are 2.4 times more likely to have, and to die from, liver & IBD cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic White women.
* American Indian/Alaska Native women are 40% more likely to have kidney/renal pelvis cancer as non-Hispanic White women.
A fourth indicator is infant mortality. Proper nutrition plays a major role in successful pregnancy and delivery, as well as in infant birth weight and ability to thrive. Among Indian populations, infant mortality is significantly elevated:
* American Indian/Alaska Natives have 1.4 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites.
* American Indian/Alaska Native babies are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white babies to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and they are 30% more likely to die from complications related to low birthweight or congenital malformations compared to non-Hispanic whites babies.
* American Indian/Alaska Native infants are 3.7 times as likely as non-Hispanic white infants to have mothers who began prenatal care in the 3rd trimester or did not receive prenatal care at all.
These are only a few indicators of the widespread health problems afflicting our native populations. Far too often, these problems are traceable, at least in part, to long-term hunger and systemic malnutrition.
ACTION: WHAT YOU CAN DO
First, please give through Feeding America; additional information and the donation link appear at the end of this section, and donations are being matched.
Second, if you have additional funds, I'd like to plug a new organization, Okiciyap, brought to my attention by Kossack betson08, who is directly involved with it. Many of you know betson08 from her work with Pretty Bird Woman House, the Native women's anti-violence organization and women's shelter on the Standing Rock reservation, co-founded by Georgia Littleshield.
Ms. Littleshield has put her skill and determination to work once again, this time on the Cheyenne River reservation, and once again, our betson08 is helping out. The latest project is Okiciyap (a Lakota word meaning "we help"). Okiciyap's mission includes fighting poverty, hunger, and the epidemic of teen suicide on the reservation. The organization has been granted 501(c)(3) status, and has launched its first project: creating a food pantry to help Cheyenne River residents who might otherwise not survive the coming harsh winter. At this start-up point, financial contributions are critical to the group's survival - and to the survival of Cheyenne River families, children, and elders. If you can squeeze out a little extra, please do so via the following widget:
Third, if you can spare yet a little extra, please visit navajo's diary of two nights ago and chip in a few bucks to help buy propane and/or a space heater for residents of Rosebud and Pine Ridge. The last two winters in south Dakota have been extremely harsh, and this year promises to be at least as bad. A few dollars spent here could, quite literally, save some lives.
Fourth, if you have not yet read today's front-page post by Denise Oliver-Velez, please do - and show your support via tips, recs, comments, and sharing it fa and wide. It's an important piece, and a brutally honest one, and it deserves both our attention and our follow-through.
Finally, when planning charitable giving, please consider tribal efforts to alleviate hunger within our Native communities. As happens every year, we will lose too many of our people this winter to hunger, malnutrition, freezing weather, and preventable health problems. To save lives, we have to act. Now.
Because soon, it will be the season of the Windigo.
Donate to Feeding America
Feeding America locates food surplus and intercepts it on its way to the trash and distributes it to food banks all over the country. They do not buy most of their food, which is why they can provide meals so efficiently. They collect from vendors, grocery stores, and restaurants all over the country. Plenty of food is out there -- the problem is one of logistics, transportation, and distribution.
Because Feeding America redistributes surplus, they can provide healthy meals cheaply. Ninety five cents on every dollar that you donate here goes to food distribution. Donating to Feeding America is one of the most efficient ways that you can help aid hungry people.
Even $1 will help. Click on the icon above.
If you have the means, please donate to Feeding America by clicking on the box to the right. In addition to supplying food banks all over the country, they help hungry kids through their Backpack Program, Kids Cafe, Summer Food, and School Pantry programs. And this month, Ameriprise Financial will match your donation -- which means that every dollar you donate provides 16 meals to hungry people.1 in 6:
1 in 6 adults. 1 in 4 children. In America. Please join us this weekend.All times Eastern!
All times Eastern!
Sunday, Oct 16
9:00a -- rb137 with Is it real food?
12:00p -- JanF with Food Banks and Food Pantries
3:00p -- Aji with 1 in 3: Windigo - Hunger in Native America < --- You are here!
5:00p -- Patric Juillet
7:00p -- Chacounne
10:00p -- boatsie
We are proud to be taking part in Blog Action Day OCT 16 2011 www.blogactionday.org