Facing diabetes: Walkers of many Indian nations seek a greater response to health crisisThe walkers spread their message as they passed through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota, including stops on the Standing Rock, Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake reservations. They hope to inspire other American Indians to confront the diabetes epidemic facing Indian Country.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
In a low-key but emotional presentation at UND’s American Indian Center today, B.J. Rainbow welcomed a dozen visitors with prayers, honor songs, small gifts and something deeply personal.
The visitors were Indians representing nearly as many tribes — Shoshone, Ojibwe, Mohawk, Spokane, Lakota, Navajo and others — who are halfway through a cross-country walk, hoping to inspire other American Indians to confront the diabetes epidemic facing Indian Country.
They started walking in Oregon in early February, as another group set off on a route through the southern United States. The two groups expect to converge in Washington, D.C., on July 8.
“We have a lot of relatives of our own who suffer from diabetes and other health issues,” said Rainbow, a UND student with ties to the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes. So he had brought a prized personal possession, an eagle feather he received in recognition of his service as a Marine in Iraq in 2003.
“Because all of you have earned this,” he said, “I ask if you can put it on your staff,” a spiritual symbol behind which the walkers march.
“You will always be in my prayers,” Rainbow said, “and in our community’s prayers.”
American Indians die from diabetes at far higher rates than other Americans, health and tribal authorities have reported, and most blame poor diet, lack of exercise and other manageable factors for much of the problem.
Organizers of “Longest Walk,” the third such journey undertaken since 2008, say they believe Indians must take primary responsibility for dealing with the crisis themselves.
“It’s something my grandmother used to tell me, that only we can do it,” walk coordinator Chris Francisco said. “Each tribe has its own responsibility to inspire the people to take care of themselves.”
The walkers “crow hop” across country, he said, relying on support vehicles and young local volunteers who “sub” for the regulars by running part of the route.
Francisco, 49, who is Dine, or Navajo, responded to his own diabetes diagnosis by changing his diet and increasing the amount of exercise he gets. He also advocates “going back to some traditional ways of taking care of ourselves.”
Walkers are told there is a “no tolerance” policy toward drugs, alcohol and weapons on the journey.
The walkers spread their message as they passed through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota, including stops on the Standing Rock, Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake reservations.
After breakfast Wednesday morning in Grand Forks, they’ll head into Minnesota, where they expect to travel through the White Earth, Red Lake, Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations over the next days or so.
‘The freedom to go back and learn’
It’s been an eye-opening journey so far for Ellyn Carlson, 21, including a greater awareness of her varied ethnic makeup — largely American Indian, including Spokane and Okanagan tribes, but also Irish and Swedish.
“I’m more spiritual because of this walk,” she said as she and the others settled in at the UND American Indian Center for a lunch of buffalo stew.
After hearing sad stories from older relatives about forced boarding schools and loss of language and culture, “my generation has the freedom to go back and learn our culture,” she said, and use those lessons to deal with such problems as poverty, alcoholism and diabetes.
“When I came to this area, the Dakotas, and saw the number of people who are fluent in their native tongue, it was so inspiring to me,” Carlson said. “I’m seeing how great the Lakota Nation is. They’re very strong people. And I feel the same way about the Ojibwe.
“The hospitality here has been great. They’re so willing to open their homes to strangers for the common good.”
A fact sheet on diabetes and American Indians adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is available at http://www.ndep.nih.gov/media/fs_amindian.pdf .