AHA News: Elder Shares Stories of Life, Laughter and American Indian Health

Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 (American Heart Association News) — Linda Pulau loves telling stories. At the age of 79, the oldest president of the Delaware Grand Council of North America had a few.

Some feel nostalgic, about growing up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of Kiowa’s father and a mother who was a Delaware (also known as Lenape). Some of it hurts when you talk about the struggles of the American Indians.

She tells the stories in the Oklahoma novel, moving from one topic to another. She talks about her father, a famous photographer. She remembers the armed confrontation with the electric company. She shares the tales of Bigfoot she heard outside her home in Anadarko.

Her stories often end with laughter. They regularly express pride in her work in preserving culture and protecting the health of Native Americans.

“When you’re about 80 or so, that’s all you have to do is past,” she said. “And I love talking about the past,” celebrating the things she had to do — and enjoying the experience of “being an Indian woman.”

Her stories span the globe. She is known for elite university presidents, directors of Smithsonian museums and religious leaders from the far reaches of Canada. But, she said, her greatest achievement was the work she did in her hometown of Oklahoma, where she helped researchers understand heart health among what she regularly calls “my people” before correcting herself: “They’re not ‘me’. They’re people.”

Native Americans have type 2 diabetes at rates three times higher than their white counterparts, according to a 2020 report from the American Heart Association. For those who develop heart disease, diabetes is often the cause.

She knows the toll of losses personally. Her mother, father, and younger brother all died of heart problems related to diabetes. She also has diabetes and needed six stents to be placed in her heart. Because of a rare eye disease, she is almost blind.

But health problems were with her from the start. So she has the determination to do things her way.

In the southwestern part of Oklahoma, the government forced the people of Delaware, who were originally from the area that is now New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, to settle on the north side of the Washita River, along with the Wichita and Caddo peoples. The Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache were forced to settle in the south. “My mother was on one side of the river, and my father was on the other side of the river.”

North of the river, people were growing their own food. “We had gardens, beautiful gardens, we ate veggies, and we learned how to preserve food like that.” The people of the south were traditionally focused on hunting. “My dad used to say he didn’t eat much weed” until after he got married.

Polo survived polio as an infant. The brace she had to wear wasn’t a hindrance. It became a useful weapon. “All my cousins ​​were afraid of me,” she said with a laugh. “Man, this thing hurts when I kicked them!”

The medical care she received reflected the problem of being an American Indian in an unsympathetic system. When she needed to gain weight, the doctor insisted that she drink milk. “Very few Indians drink milk” because so many are unable to digest it, Polo said, a condition called lactose intolerance.

I faced other challenges. The school I attended was mostly white. “Growing up in an Indian and white world that neither cared about – it was hard.”

But she has grown into a fun loving adult. A lot of the fun centered on alcohol, which would turn out to be a problem. “I was kind of crazy in the early days,” she said.

Under pressure from her parents to clean up her act, she moved to Maine to live with her aunt, Lucy Nicollard, who achieved fame as a vaudevilleist under the name Princess Watahuaso.

She changed her life.

“Boy, no one got in her way,” Pulau said. “And my mom was like that, up to a point.”

She took lessons from her mother, Winnie, and her aunt. “They taught me how not to walk around with my head down. Be there. Be up front.”

She returned to Oklahoma, enrolled in a four-year college and earned her degree. Worked on recording native speakers of the Delaware language. She wrote a play about American Indian college students.

She made headlines as she and her neighbors took up arms to defend their land when a gas and electric company sprang up to run power lines across her property in 1986. She lost a protracted court battle, and was arrested by federal guards. The sight of power lines across her land enrages her to this day.

Other stories have happier outcomes, such as her work to preserve the legacy of her father, Horace.

When he died in 1984, he was not widely known. Linda collected 2000 of her negatives and worked at Stanford University in California for a year to archive them. Thanks to this work, he is now heralded as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century and has been celebrated at the National Museum of the American Indian and at exhibitions across the country.

She became a spiritual leader who helped bless and rebury the remains discovered on Ellis Island in New York Harbor and elsewhere.

But nothing uses Linda Pulau’s skills like a quarter-century old with a strong heart study.

Started in 1988, the Strong Heart Program was the first major effort to understand Native American heart health. Pulau was hired to help recruit volunteers to sit for interviews and exams.

People were hesitant. But Pulau began searching for them. “I know every pig trail, every lair, every place in southwest Oklahoma” because she has a family on both sides of the river.

She also had experiences that make them feel good. She estimates that she assisted in 1,600 interviews initially. Elisa Lee, co-founder of the Strong Heart Study, now professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, said Pulau’s hard work and enthusiasm contributed greatly to the study’s success.

“A lot of the time, we’d say, ‘Let’s talk to Linda,'” he told me when researchers had questions. See what you’re thinking. “…and we followed her advice most of the time.”

Over time, the results reversed old misconceptions about Native Americans and heart health. To date, it has been the basis for more than 450 scientific papers.

Poolaw has spent 25 years working for Strong Heart. I loved “working with Indians, learning about their history, learning about their history, getting to know who they are. I was close to a lot of them. And that was the best part.”

The worst part, she said, was losing them.

Thanks to the tests, many volunteers learned that they had diabetes. Lots of help. But more often than not, someone would mess with her heart for her in an interview, and she’ll find her obituary next week.

She said generations raised on government goods and fast food pay for it with their health. Although the study helped her learn healthy habits and lose weight, “I was a junk eater at one point. Maybe that’s why I have diabetes. But how are you going to educate them? We try. We try, we try, we try. But now — it’s a mess.”

She understands the reasons behind the problem. You remember hearing a Navajo elder acknowledge the challenges of eating in a world where your culture has been cut off from its traditional sources of food and forced to adapt to white people’s food and unhealthy government goods.

The sheikh said food is more than just avoiding hunger.

“It’s our life,” Pulau said. From birth ceremonies to funerals, “Whatever we do, we eat. I don’t care what meeting we go to,” What are we going to eat? And “Where is there to eat?” – it’s the first thing we think of.

“It’s our life,” Polo repeated. When a Navajo woman said it, “I had big tears in my eyes.”

These days, there are other problems as well. “I see things around me that hurt and sadden me.” and angry. She was working to combat methamphetamine abuse, which she said had devastated her area. She is the chair of a group called Consortium Against Substance Abstance that is working to build an activity center for young people as a way to get around the problem.

It’s frustrating. But long ago she had a way of coping.

She said, “I love to laugh.” Her mother used to say, “Linda, have you ever been serious?” And I think that’s the way I’ve been through life.” The love of laughter is something I’ve seen in tribes across the continent, from Penobscot to Sioux to Navajo to Alaskan Natives.

“I don’t care where you are—if you’re in a group or church, if you’re at Walmart, wherever you’re dancing or whatever you want. You can hear us laugh. And we don’t ‘t go’ heh heh heh “. we He laughs. “

Her theory is: “That’s why we’re still here.”

Recently, Pulau shared his laughs with other Delaware elders. I brought them together to share their memories in the movie. She tells them why: “Every time I go to a funeral, if someone is my age or older, while they go to the floor, I say, ‘There are more stories. “

She is proud of the stories people tell about her. Even from the wild days. She said, “I am not a saint.” But “whatever I did – I’m not ashamed of it.”

One of the stories goes back to her strong-hearted days. So many people have learned that they have diabetes because of her work that some are beginning to say, “Linda Polo gave me diabetes.”

She didn’t mind taking the blame, as long as it led to people getting help.

“They were being treated really well,” she said. “And that was the prize I got. They started to take care of themselves.”

American Heart Association news covers heart and brain health. Not all opinions expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or operated by the American Heart Association, Inc. , All rights reserved. If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.

Written by Michael Marshall

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