Each person handles the news of health concerns and disease differently. Art projects often help raise awareness of the health concerns brought by a specific diagnosis while serving as a comforting form of therapy and healing for current patients. Learning how to cope and live with diabetes can be staggeringly hard. Many in our Indigenous family live with the symptoms and resulting fragilities brought by this blood sugar monster already. Here are three Indigenous responses to diabetes through art worth sharing.
Ire’ne Lara Silva’s new poetry collection is centered on her diagnosis as an insulin-dependent diabetic. Blood Sugar Canto tackles the heaviest of topics: ailing health, the trauma of a long family history of diabetes, constant physical pain, the fear that comes with medical emergencies, callus medical professionals and multiple misdiagnoses and the transformative re-negotiation of self we all must confront in the face of life-changing health information. Poems such as “ode to the syringe,” “tequilita” and “the diabetic lover” exemplify how all aspects of life change unexpectedly when living with disease. From not knowing our last shot of tequila for the night is going to be the final shot we ever get to take to changing the choices we have for expressing our sexual desires – everything shines in a different light once a dramatic life change occurs. As illustrated by the piece “poem to frida, patron saint of art and pain,” health battles bring even our favorite artists new meaning. Poems such as “en trozos/in pieces,” “we don’t give morphine for heartburn” and “one sided conversation with my mother” delve into the author’s sensory rich memories of family member’s health battles with obvious love, anger and reverence. With several pieces that hold the qualities of both elegy and canto, the elegant tonal shifts, ferocious beauty and unwavering clarity shown in the poems cannot be overstated. The fifth section entitled “let my last breath be song” ends the collection cleverly with a gathering of uplifting love songs to elements of the natural world and the human body explaining in its first poem “the world is medicine / let / it in.” A potentially powerful tool for health advocacy in Xicana and Indigenous communities, Blood Sugar Canto reminds us that curandera poets practice healing in every endeavor.
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ recent project with the American Diabetes Association of Greater San Diego is a short documentary called Awakening the Spirit. This film interviews some of the Indigenous people who have found regimes that work against diabetes. People with different stages of the diabetes or doing preventative practices are highlighted in their cultural practices, exercise regimes and daily lives. From traditional dance to MMA training, the video highlights some of the many ways to awaken your body and focus on your health.
Chantell Trista Yazzie was looking for a powerful way to respond to the dangerously high rates of diabetes and obesity among the younger generations of Navajo. She soon decided to use granulated sugar, glass, visual art and poetry to produce a multimedia installation she titled, “The Sugar Project: Modern Day Navajo Monster.” A video version of the installation paired with music is online to make the work available to a larger audience. The haunting images of a tribal man and woman made of sugar are drawn with the sugar, their backs to each other. Both figures sport x’s in place of their eyes and mouths, as if they are already dead. Outside the glass surrounding the sugar profiles are images of traditional practices surrounding a baby that is placed in the center of the work. “Our identities are going away and we have to fix ourselves before (it gets) to the little ones,” she explained.