Diabetes in Native Chicago: An ethnography of identity, community, and care

Margaret E. Pollak
Anthropology, The University of Wisconsin - Madison
June, 2016


While diabetes has been found in human populations for several millennia, cases of type 2 diabetes were rare in American Indian populations prior to World War Two. Today American Indians have some of the highest rates of diabetes worldwide. The majority of the research on this epidemic focuses on reservation populations. While rates of diabetes climbed in reservation areas, they also grew in cities, where nearly 80 percent of Native people live today. In this dissertation, I explore experiences with, understandings of, and care for diabetes in Chicago's Native community, a community that is made up of individuals representing more than 100 tribes from across the United States and Canada. Through this exploration I illustrate that diabetes in Native Chicago is understood and organized by a local system of classification that has been shaped by what community members observe in cases of the disease among family and friends. I show that in the face of this epidemic, care for disease is woven into the everyday lives of community members. Ultimately I argue that the relationship between human culture and human biology is a reciprocal one, in which history and culture shape modern human health and human health shapes modern culture. I argue that colonialism acted on bodies and communities through intergenerational trauma, displacement, chronic poverty, and altered foodways, and that the high risk of developing diabetes is being incorporated into contemporary discussions of indigenous American identity in the urban space.