Thesis Published: Does the cultural use of local plants enable coping with diabetes and generational trauma in Salish tribal communities?

For everyone still subscribed & reading: I know it’s been quiet around here this past Winter & Spring. I’ve been focusing on health, TCOB & funneling all my creative energy and writing to the thesis that follows. This paper completes my graduate program and illuminates the connections between plants, culture, and healing; between social constructions of health, illness and narrative. It’s a case study of an innovative, culturally based ethnobotanical education program, where plants are an integral part of cultural healing, diabetes prevention, and addiction recovery. It’s available full text, so brew some tea, have a read, and let me know what you think. Now, more writing projects to follow. Stay tuned. 

Does the cultural use of local plants enable coping with diabetes and generational trauma in Salish tribal communities?And how might storytelling and narrative be employed to potentiate cultural revitalization and health education programs? A qualitative case study.


Type 2 diabetes disproportionately affects American Indian/Alaska Native populations and, despite clinical nutrition and lifestyle intervention programs, the disease continues to be a rapidly growing problem in tribal communities. Ethnobotanical education programs hold promise for diabetes prevention efforts as they not only provide valuable and applicable information pertaining to individual self-care, but serve to reconnect native people to traditions and cultural heritage. By healing generational trauma and reconnecting people to their communities and cultural heritage, ethnobotanical education programs have the capacity to potentially alleviate the burden of diabetes in tribal communities. A key feature of these programs is the utilization of stories and cultural narratives. Stories relay a worldview of the fundamental interconnectedness of nature and culture and allow individuals to structure new meanings of their experiences of health and illness. What follows is a qualitative case study of the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center in Elma, WA, which utilizes culturally grounded traditional knowledge to educate about health and heal cultural identity.

Keywords: Ethnobotany, diabetes, generational trauma, traditional foods, traditional medicines, cultural traditions.

Full text, non-APA format | Full text, APA format

Introductory Excerpt

In the United States, Type 2 diabetes is rapidly emerging as one of the greatest challenges ever faced by the medical establishment. Its prevalence in the general population is growing, affecting over than 26 million Americans and costing over $200 billion per year. One out of every ten health care dollars is spent on diabetes treatment and it is the leading cause of heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and amputations in the United States today. And the disease is by no means confined to the United States or the first world. Increasingly being recognized as a disease of economic development, more countries are seeing rises in diabetes incidence rates. Research suggests that by 2050, one out of every two people globally will develop diabetes at some point in their life.

Diabetes is clearly a pertinent health issue and some populations—American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular—have been and continue to be more affected than others. Diabetes is also a relatively new disease in Indian country and was virtually unseen in tribal communities until the 1960’s.

Research reveals drastically different understandings of diabetes etiology, diagnosis, and treatment between the biomedical establishment and tribal communities. The biomedical discourse around diabetes focused on genetic and lifestyle factors, and are vastly different from indigenous constructs. In contrast, narrative and ethnographic inquiry in American Indian and Alaska Native communities reveal a markedly different perspective, largely attributing diabetes to generational trauma and social oppression. The design and development of most diabetes treatment programs is dominated by biomedical understandings of the disease. Mainstream diabetes prevention programs have not been successful in tribal communities because they are developed using non-Native constructs of health, illness, and diabetes. Furthermore, mainstream methods of diagnoses, treatment, and discourse around ignite the unintended consequences of shaming, blaming, and further marginalizing these populations. Then question then arises: can diabetes be prevented or better coped with using culturally grounded ethnobotanical education programs?

In response to the need for culturally grounded treatment, cultural restoration and ethnobotanical education programs are emerging in tribal communities that not only instruct participants on practical and accessible lessons in health maintenance but also serve to revitalize cultural traditions and collective identity—which many tribal members identify as the root cause of diabetes in AI/AN.

What follows is a case study of the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center in Elma, WA. This 45-day inpatient program features a weekly class devoted to traditional foods and medicine education. Through its holistic and culturally-grounded approach to individual and cultural healing, program staff work with patients and participants through relaying useful health maintenance information as well as working on the level of story and narrative to shift the course of this disease in tribal communities.

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7 Responses

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  2. Michael Watson

    Wow! This looks awesome! May I share it with my Undergraduate and graduate students?
    Congratulations !!!!!

  3. Pingback : Numen News & Blog | Numen: The Healing Power of Plants

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