Published October 15, 2015
SHAWNEE, OKLAHOMA—For many Native American tribes, powwows are seen as community gatherings, a social time complete with colorful regalia, fry bread and stew, and the familiar sound of traditional drumming and dance. But they’re also beginning to serve as important tools for health advocates who are working to reduce health disparities within the population.
This weekend, the American Heart Association (AHA) is hosting the fourth annual “Honoring the Beat of Life” Powwow in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on October 17, an event that seeks to empower tribal members to embrace the healthy aspects of Native American traditions.
“Our theme of ‘Honoring the Beat of Life’ is really about honoring the drum and the culture of powwows for Native Americans,” said Heather Levi (Kiowa/Cheyenne), who is serving as the powwow’s chairperson. “It’s this connection to what the drum beat does to your body, causing you to move and to dance. Dancing is one of the many things we want to encourage.”
This year’s powwow, which is being sponsored by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma—one of 39 tribes in the state, will be a day full of activities including free health screenings, a health information fair, healthy food, activity demonstrations, as well as bingo and other games. A traditional Gourd Dance will begin at 3 p.m. with Grand Entry to take place that evening at 7 p.m.
Powwow food vendors are also supporting the efforts, and although concession stands will still serve most traditional powwow fare, a snack table will offer free healthier alternatives, challenging families to make the choice for themselves.
“In the past, we have served fry bread, then we tried serving whole wheat fry bread, but this year we’re forgoing it altogether,” said Rachel Crawford (Navajo/Witchita), director of health equity, Native American and Alaska Native Initiatives for the local American Heart Association and member of the powwow’s planning committee. “It’s really starting to create this dynamic of eating healthy Native foods at community gatherings and events.”
By introducing these slight modifications, it gradually helps to phase out foods high in sodium or fat that have become staples in some Native American diets, tweaks have been well received, Crawford said.
“It’s something that’s starting to stick in our part of Indian Country. Our approach is to make these opportunities for change available and achievable for Native Americans. If we do this as a community, it becomes a positive change for our people, and they begin to believe the behavior change is realistic,” she added.
Overall the rates of chronic disease for American Indians have remained at steadily alarming rates. According to “The State of Obesity 2015″ report by the Trust for America’s Health, American Indians are more likely to report being overweight or obese, and having diabetes and heart disease than the general population.
Nationally, heart disease is the leading cause of death for American Indians, and more than a third of Native Americans with the disease die before age 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Considering the longevity of health disparities reported for Native Americans, the numbers show continue to show little improvement, Levi said. “In most cases, they’re getting worse. For the American Indian communities, we’re dying at a younger age than U.S. citizens, but that’s because most of the prevention efforts miss the mark when it comes to American Indian communities,” she added.
Experts say the most effective ways to reduce the risk of obesity and heart disease is by eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercising. Combining this knowledge with the community setting of a powwow, Levi said, the event serves to empower people to try, and possibly adopt, lifestyle changes at their own pace.
“We don’t want to overwhelm people, but we do want to offer people choices,” Levi said. “Small changes to your lifestyle can make a difference in the long term.”
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared Native Health News Alliance. Used with permission. All rights reserved.