'Sweet Bloods': Cree Nation tells stories of living with diabetes in new book

In time for Diabetes Awareness Month, a new collection of stories aiming to remove the stigma of living with diabetes has been released by the Cree Board of the Health and Social Services of James Bay.

1 in 5 adults in Cree Nation live with diabetes

Maggie Etapp, in the green sweater, and her husband Simon Etapp, pose with their family outside their cabin. Both Maggie and Simon are living with diabetes and have their stories included in the collection. (Submitted by Maggie Etapp)

On the surface, there is very little in common between 59-year-old Maggie Etapp and 23-year-old Jonathan Linton.

Linton is a snowmobile racer and former star hockey player; while Etapp, a grandmother of seven, is a residential school survivor who likes spending time at her camp.

But Etapp and Linton do have something in common: along with one in five adults in the Cree Nation, they are both living with diabetes.

Their stories, along with 25 others, are part of The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree, a new collection put together by the Cree Board of the Health and Social Services of James Bay.

"I wanted to share with the people how it was to be a diabetic. How diabetes is affecting our people," said Etapp.

Her husband, Simon, also shared his story of residential school and diabetes for the collection. Simon was diagnosed in the 1980s, and volunteers by giving nutrition workshops in his home community of Waswanipi, 730 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

The cover of 'The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee,' a collection of stories about how diabetes has impacted members of the James Bay Cree. The book is available for free to those in the Cree Nation, and for the cost of shipping to Indigenous people living on reserves across Canada. (Submitted by the Cree Board of the Health and Social Services of James Bay)

The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee is being offered free to Quebec Cree, and for the cost of shipping to Indigenous people living on reserves across Canada.

"What we are trying to do is move the story forward," said Paul Linton, Jonathan Linton's father and the assistant director of Public Health for Chishaayiyuu (people over the age of 30) for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. Paul says every single Cree family has at least one close relative living with the disease, as do many Indigenous communities across the country and around the world.

"Everyone is struggling with this same problem. It's a huge problem and we are trying to get people to start the conversation to see how to fix it," Paul said. "It's not a simple pill or injection. It involves the cost of food, the housing, the social structures, the traditional teachings, the animals on the land."

A 2016 Alberta study suggests about eight in 10 Indigenous Canadians who are young adults will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. It also suggests Indigenous people are being diagnosed with the disease younger than other Canadians. 
Jonathan Linton, right, with his friend Shawn Rabbitskin. Linton, who took part in the book's writing, walked for four and a half days from Mistissini to Oujé-Bougoumou to raise awareness about diabetes at the 2015 Annual General meeting of the Cree Nation Government. (Submitted by Jonathan Linton)

The collection of literary creative nonfiction is the result of five years of collaboration between the Cree health board, writer and University of Alberta instructor Ruth Dyck Fehderau, and Cree "storytellers" like Maggie, Simon, Jonathan, and others.  

The book has been called a "talking circle in print," and Dyck Fehderau says they are stories of resilience, life in the North and the effects of colonization.

"[The stories] reveal the ways in which diabetes is inextricably bonded to the workings of colonization," said Dyck Fehderau. "So everything from forced relocation, to residential school history, to hydroelectric projects and bureaucracy-laden medical systems. The purpose of the book is to start conversations around diabetes."

'People aren't comfortable talking about it'

Jonathan was diagnosed eight years ago, at the age of 15. He was immediately put on insulin, but kept it hidden from his friends and his coach for more than a year. At the time, he was a star enforcer on the local hockey team in Mistissini.

His dad, Paul Linton, says another hope they have for The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee is to fight the stigma still attached to diabetes.

"People aren't comfortable talking about it. There are negative connotations with a diabetes diagnosis," he said. "There is a stigma attached with it and a lot of that is from well wishing health professionals."

Linton says the hope is that non-Indigenous health professionals also read the book. The Cree Board of the Health and Social Services of James Bay has made it available for purchase on Amazon, in the hopes of finding a broader audience.