Documentary to explore issues behind high diabetes rates among Tohono O’odham.

Staff reports.

LINCOLN, Neb. – Before 1930, only one case of diabetes was found among the people of the desert, or Tohono O’odham. But 30 years after the Coolidge Dam was built in Arizona, health officials recorded more than 500 cases of diabetes.

”Bad Sugar,” a new documentary premiering during the ”Unnatural Causes: Is Inequity Making Us Sick?” series in March on PBS, explores environmental and political issues behind high rates of Type 2 diabetes among the Tohono O’odham and shows how these and other historical events are significant factors in the rampant disease.

”Things didn’t happen by chance,” said Jim Fortier, Metis/Ojibwe, ”Bad Sugar” producer and director. ”These things are based on decisions that somebody else made and they are now having horrible consequences on Indian people.”

In the 1890s after a series of dams and other water projects were built, essentially all water supplied to the Pimas was cut off. In 1930, a dam named after President Coolidge was to provide some water to the Pima, but instead changed their livelihood. Although the president smoked the peace pipe with tribal leaders, his promise was broken after these desert dwellers, who traditionally relied on local game and farming, received little water.

”Living along the river meant our life,” said Henrietta Lopez of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project. ”Having the river flowing through our community meant having natural vegetation along the river, the willow, mesquite [and] cottonwood trees.”

Research has also found that people under severe stress produce cortisol or other hormones that can build up over time and increase blood sugar. The Tohono O’odham are among the poorest residents in the nation – about half of the tribe’s residents live in poverty and in one of the most extremely dry areas in the United States.

But since 2004, when the Pima signed the Arizona Water Settlements Act, there is new hope among tribal members. In addition to providing food to their community, the Pima now grow wheat to sell to pasta producers and are looking at other ways to develop new business opportunities.

”We can’t think of diabetes and colonization just simply from the roll of the victim,” said Dr. Donald Warne, president and CEO of the American Indian Health Management and Policy, who has been treating Native people in Arizona for years. ”Disease patterns like diabetes occur over many years, so we’re not going to see dramatic change overnight. But I think in the long run as we see more success in economic development and work force development, we’re going to see improvements in health care systems, educational systems and social policy.

”We have to take more control over own community,” he said.

”Unnatural Causes” is scheduled to air in most cities starting March 27. The series explores the economic, physical and social backgrounds among multicultural communities, the poor and middle class to see how these factors affect health.

”Improvement in our neighborhoods, living wage and jobs are as much health issues as diet and exercise,” said Larry Adelman, ”Unnatural Causes” executive producer. ”Social policy is health policy.”

”Unnatural Causes” is produced by California Newsreel with Vital Pictures Inc. It is being presented for PBS broadcast by the National Minority Consortia of Public Television, which includes Native American Public Telecommunications, and the Public Impact Campaign. It is also being showing in association with the Joint Center Health Policy Institute.

For more information about the series, visit For PBS air times and dates, visit

NAPT shares Native stories with the world through support of the creation, promotion and distribution of Native media. Other NAPT products include VisionMaker Video, a distributor and co-founder of many films seen on PBS.