Elder shares stories of life, laughter and American Indian health

By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News

Delaware Nation elder Linda Poolaw is a diabetes and heart disease survivor. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Boone)
Delaware Nation elder Linda Poolaw is a diabetes and heart disease survivor. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Boone)

Linda Poolaw loves telling stories. At 79, the Grand Chief of the Delaware Grand Council of North America has a few.

Some are nostalgic, about growing up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a Kiowa father and a mother who was Delaware (also known as the Lenape). Some are painful, when she talks about American Indians' struggles.

She tells stories in an Oklahoma twang, skipping from topic to topic. She talks about her father, a renowned photographer. She recalls her armed standoff with the electric company. She shares tales of Bigfoot, whom she's heard outside her Anadarko home.

Her stories often end in laughter. And regularly, they express pride about her work preserving culture and protecting Native Americans' health.

"When you get to be almost 80 years or so, that's all you're about anymore is the past," she said. "And I like talking about the past," celebrating the things she got to do – and relishing the experience of "being an Indian woman."

Her stories span the globe. She's known presidents of elite universities, directors of Smithsonian museums and faith leaders from the remotest parts of Canada. But she said her greatest achievement is the work she did in her home state of Oklahoma, helping researchers understand heart health among what she regularly calls "my people," before she corrects herself: "They're not 'mine.' 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 most often to blame.

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

But health issues have been with her from the start. So has a determination to do things her way.

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

North of the river, people grew their own food. "We had gardens, beautiful gardens, and we ate vegetables, and we learned how to preserve food like that." The people to the south had traditionally emphasized hunting. "My dad used to say he never ate so many weeds" until after he was married.

Linda Poolaw (left) and Delaware Nation President Deborah Dotson with the historic Coaquannock map that was donated to the Delaware Nation last year. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Boone)
Linda Poolaw (left) and Delaware Nation President Deborah Dotson with the historic Coaquannock map that was donated to the Delaware Nation last year. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Boone)

Poolaw survived polio as an infant. The brace she had to wear was not an impediment. It became a handy weapon. "All my cousins were afraid of me," she said, laughing. "Man, that thing hurt when I kicked 'em!"

The medical care she received reflected the problem of being American Indian in an unsympathetic system. When she needed to gain weight, the doctor insisted she drink milk. But "very, very few Indian people drink milk," Poolaw said, because many are unable to digest it, a condition called lactose intolerance.

She faced other challenges. The school she attended was mostly white. "Growing up in an Indian and white world that neither one cared for each other – it was hard."

But she grew into a fun-loving young adult. A lot of the fun centered on alcohol, which would grow into 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 Nicolar, who had achieved fame as a vaudeville performer under the name Princess Watahwaso.

It changed her life.

"Boy, nobody got in her way," Poolaw said. "And my mom was like that, to a certain extent."

Lessons from her mother, Winnie, and her aunt took hold. "They taught me how not to be walking around with my head down. Be out there. Be up front."

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

She made headlines when she and neighbors took up arms to defend their land when a gas and electric company showed up to run power lines across her property in 1986. She lost a lengthy court fight, and federal marshals arrested her. The sight of the power lines across her land angers 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 gathered 2,000 of his negatives and worked at Stanford University in California for a year to archive them. Thanks to that work, he's now heralded as one of the great photographers of the 20th century and has been celebrated at the National Museum of the American Indian and in exhibits around the country.

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

But nothing put Linda Poolaw's skills to use like her quarter-century with the Strong Heart Study.

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

People had been reluctant. But Poolaw began seeking them out. "I know every pig trail, every hideout, every place in southwest Oklahoma" because she had family from both sides of the river.

She also had experiences that put them at ease. She estimates she helped with 1,600 interviews initially. Strong Heart Study co-founder Elisa Lee, now professor emeritus and a former dean of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, said Poolaw's hard work and enthusiasm contributed greatly to the study's success.

When researchers had questions, Lee said, "very often, we would say, 'Let's talk to Linda. See what she thinks.' … And we followed her advice most of the time."

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

Poolaw spent 25 years working for Strong Heart. She loved "working with Indian people, getting to meet them, getting to know their history, getting to know who they are. I was kin to a lot of them. And that was the best part."

The worst part, she said, was losing them.

Thanks to the exams, many volunteers learned they had diabetes. Many got help. But too often, someone would spill their heart out to her in an interview, and she'd find their obituary the next week.

Generations raised on government commodities and fast food are paying for it with their health, she said. Although the study helped her learn healthy habits and lose weight, "I was a junk eater at one time. Probably 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. She recalls hearing a Navajo elder who acknowledged the challenges of eating in a world where your culture has been cut off from its traditional sources of nourishment and forced to adapt to white people's food and unhealthy government commodities.

Food, the elder had said, is about more than avoiding hunger.

"It is our life," Poolaw said. From birth celebrations 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 a place to eat?' – it's the first thing that we think about.

"It's our life," Poolaw repeated. When the Navajo woman said that, "I had big tears in my eyes."

These days, there are other problems as well. "I see things around me that hurt, that make me sad." And angry. She's been working to fight methamphetamine abuse, which she said has ravaged her area. She's chair of a group called the Consortium Against Substance Abuse that is working to build a youth activity center as a way of putting a dent in the problem.

It's discouraging. But she's long had a way of coping.

"I love to laugh," she said. Her mother used to say, "'Linda, are you ever serious?' And I think that's how I got through life." Love of laughter is something she's seen in tribes across the continent, from the Penobscot to the Sioux to the Navajo to Alaska Natives.

Linda Poolaw speaking at the Delaware Nation's 2019 Bigfoot Storytelling Event in Anadarko, Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Boone)
Linda Poolaw speaking at the Delaware Nation's 2019 Bigfoot Storytelling Event in Anadarko, Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Boone)

"I don't care where you are – if you're in a group or a church, or if in Walmart, or wherever you are at a powwow or dance or whatever you want. You could hear us laughing. And we don't go 'hee-hee-hee-hee.' We laugh."

Her theory is: "That's why we're still here."

Lately, Poolaw has been sharing laughs with other Delaware elders. She gathered them to share their memories on film. She tells them why: "Every time I go to a funeral, if it's somebody my age or older, as they go into the ground, I say, 'There go some more stories.'"

She's proud of the stories people tell about her. Even from the wild days. "I'm not a saint," she said. But "everything I did – I'm not ashamed of it."

One story goes back to her Strong Heart days. So many people learned they had diabetes because of her work that some started saying, "Linda Poolaw gave me diabetes."

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

"They were getting good treatment," she said. "And that was the prize that I got. They started taking care of themselves."

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