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Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick?

February 15, 2016

Bad Sugar

Bad Sugar, episode four of the seven part PBS’ series  Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?, focuses on the reasons for high diabetes rates in the Pima and Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona and other Native American peoples.

The Pima and Tohono O’odham Indians of southern Arizona have arguably the highest diabetes rates in the world – half of all adults are afflicted. But a century ago, diabetes was virtually unknown here. Researchers have poked and prodded the Pima for decades in search of a biological – or more recently, genetic – explanation for their high rates of disease. Meanwhile, medical-only interventions have failed to stem the rising tide not just among Native Americans, but globally.

What happened to the health of the Pima? During the 20th century, the diversion of river water to upstream white settlements disrupted the Pima’s agricultural economy and customary ways. Local tribes were plunged into poverty and became dependent on the U.S. government. Healthy traditional foods like tepary beans, cholla buds, and wild game were replaced by surplus commodities like white flour, lard, processed cheese and canned foods – a diabetic’s nightmare. A sense of “futurelessness” took hold, and so did diabetes.

According to Dr. Don Warne, a trained physician and traditional Lakota healer who works with the Pima, health problems like diabetes begin long before people get to the clinic or the hospital. While obesity and diet are risk factors, so is poverty. People in the lowest income brackets are at least twice as likely to become diabetic as those in the highest. For the O’odham and other Native Americans, the stress of living in poverty is compounded by a history of cultural, economic and physical loss, which researchers believe magnifies its impact on health.

Attorney Rod Lewis has spent the last several decades fighting to restore his tribe’s water rights. In 2004 he helped negotiate the largest water settlement in Arizona history, which not only guaranteed the return of water but provided crucial funds to build roads, dams and other infrastructure. Now the Pima are beginning to farm again. Leaders are cautiously optimistic that community empowerment, along with sustainable and culturally appropriate development can help restore prosperity, hope, and health.  (

About our Presenter:

Donald Warne, (Oglala Lakota) MD, MPH is Professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health in the College of Health Professions at North Dakota State University, and he is the Senior Policy Advisor to the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board.  Dr. Warne is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe from Pine Ridge, SD and comes from a long line of traditional healers and medicine men.  He received his MD from Stanford University School of Medicine and his MPH from Harvard School of Public Health.

Professional activities include:

  • Member, National Board of Directors, American Cancer Society
  • Member, Minority Affairs Section and Association of American Indian Physicians Representative to the American Medical Association
  • Member, Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, US Department of Health and Human Services
  • Member, Advisory Committee on Breast Cancer in Young Women, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Member, National Institutional Review Board, Indian Health Service

Location and Time

Augsburg College

Reception in Sverdrup Hall, Main Lobby 5:00-6:00
Screening begins at 6:00 in Science Hall 123
Discussion with Dr. Warne follows
This event is free to the public


Thank you to our sponsors: Augsburg College, American Indian, First Nations, and Indigenous Studies Department, The Batalden Seminar in Applied Ethics, the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota,


For parking permits contact Christina Erickson at Permits are limited in number. For parking directions visit:  You will be parking in Lot L off of 35th between Riverside and Butler Pl. You will need a parking permit.

If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to the Augsburg Native American Film Series or this project, please send your checks to:

Augsburg Native American Film Series
Augsburg College, CB 115
2011 Riverside Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55454