This may be your story too. My great great great grandmother, Americos, was an enslaved Native American woman in North Carolina during the mid 1800s. Along with some of her African co-captives, she escaped bondage, traveled north, and settled in Rocky Mount, Virginia where she met and married one of my great grandfathers, Stephen Tyree. Eventually, they left the grips of the South, and our family's post-slavery history began in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. Their story was not unlike many stories of Native and African people living and struggling together in search of a better life, freedom, and justice.
For the most part, African Americans and Native Americans share a common history; forced captivity, relocation, and wholesale oppression. For centuries, that history has impacted our economic, political, and physical health and wellness. And for centuries, we have shared our experiences, strategies and solutions.
Today, again, we face another joint battle, rising rates of type 2 diabetes among our children. The Navajo Nation, along with other tribes, experiences diabetes at four times the rate of Whites in the U.S. Similarly, African Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites. The Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous governed territory that stretches across the Arizona, Utah and New Mexico borders, has taken the lead in mapping out a powerful strategy to turn the tide by passing the Healthy Diné Nation Act, which allows a 2% tax on junk food. All foods high in salt, fat and sugar, sweetened drinks, prepackaged and non-prepackaged snacks low in essential nutrients will be subject to the tax increase when purchased within the Navajo Nation. The 2% will be added to the existing 5% sales tax and the revenue generated by this tax will be deposited into a special fund that will pay for wellness centers, running trails, community gardens and health education classes.
How did they do this? People power.
"Each one of us here has a relative that’s diabetic and we face that fact every single day,” said Navajo Council Delegate Simpson, who helped pass the bill. Community members, lawyers, activists, tribal health officials, and advocates joined together to design and implement a policy that puts people's health first.
"Next, the coalition of organizers and supporters of this legislation are definitely looking at ways to address any concerns raised as well as the current opposition to the bill from Navajo Nation President, Ben Shelly. " – Crystal Echo Hawk, President of the Notah Begay III Foundation
Creating additional junk food taxes sends an important message to members of the Navajo community that their leaders care enough about the health of their community to discourage the consumption of junk foods.. This is a critical step in the fight against diabetes and other obesity related diseases. Indeed, there is much we all can learn from the Navajo Nation. While we don't belong to a self-governing territory, we can advocate for junk food taxes in our communities, where food desserts in urban and rural black neighborhoods are peppered with party stores, bodegas and gas stations often selling only sugary or salty foods. Like Native Americans, we have a rich, rural tradition of depending on the land for whole, nutritious foods. Most of us are a few generations removed from that rural reality, but we still must do what we can to encourage the next generation to eat healthy foods. Indeed, the current rates of diabetes in our communities are too dire to be ignored.
Native Americans have been at the forefront of changing the way we think about the health of our communities. For example, the seven generation sustainability concept, often attributed to the Iroquois, holds that in making decisions today, we must consider the health of children to be born in 140 years.
Monifa Bandele is a Senior Campaign Director at MomsRising.org