Diabetes is a health epidemic in many places in the United States, particularly on American Indian reservations. Tribal people have lost their limbs, eyesight and also way too often, their lives because of this disease.

In some tribal communities the prevalence of people using crutches or in wheelchairs brings to mind the image of a hospital treating war victims. And in many ways that is an apt description. Diabetes is waging war on tribal people.

But we are fighting back. Someday, diabetes will not continue to afflict more than 16 percent of the American Indian population in the United States. That’s about 1 in 6 of us. Another third have pre-diabetes.

The Santa Ynez Tribal Health Clinic on the Chumash Reservation has long focused on diabetes in our community. Our clinic was established in the 1970s because of the need to bring local health care to the reservation and the lack of options. Ever since then, the clinic’s health professionals have been expanding a health center that specializes in “the highest standards of quality health care through modern medicine and cultural traditions.” Today, our clinic is now one of the largest health clinics in the valley.

Now our clinic and tribe is teaming up with the American Indian Institute at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Continuing Education in the battle against diabetes.

First, some facts from the federal Indian Health Service to provide you some background on the problem:

— American Indian and Alaska Native adults are 2.3 times more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.

— Our youth, ages 10 to 19, have nine times the likelihood to have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes compared to non-Hispanic whites.

— Our death rates due to diabetes are 1.6 percent higher than the general population in the United States.

Someday, such statistics will be part of the past. To aid in that effort, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, along with our tribal health clinic, will be the hosts of the 2013 Native American Diabetes Conference and Health Fair at Hotel Corque in Solvang.

The one-day event on Saturday, Aug. 3 is free and open to the public. Participants will learn the latest on diabetes prevention, nutrition, endocrinology and lifestyle changes. Speakers will include leading American Indian health professionals on the subject, including Darryl Tonemah, Ph.D. (Comanche/Kiowa/Tuscarora) and Carolee Dodge Francis, Ed.D. (Oneida). Native comedian Jim Ruel (Ojibwe) will provide a bit of levity during the luncheon.

Registration is limited and pre-registration is required. Please go to the American Indian Institute’s website at www.aii.ou.edu/conferences trainings for more details and to register.

Over the past several years, our tribal government has been pleased to bring national and regional American Indian events to the valley. They offer opportunities for us to share with other tribal communities and with county residents our culture, our stories and the challenges we face. This conference also will offer, we hope, insights and knowledge to help save lives.

Richard Gomez is Tribal Vice Chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

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