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Tribes face kid obesity

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“We try to motivate people to come out and exercise,” said Radona Tom, the events coordinator for the Sleeping Ute Diabetes Prevention Program. The program includes a twice-a-week Zumba fitness class at the Sleeping Ute Recreation Center in Towaoc.

By Rachel Karas
Herald Staff Writer

First Lady Michelle Obama began the Let’s Move! in Indian Country initiative in May 2011 with a call to tribal and community leaders to help stop the growing rate of Native American childhood obesity by setting an example.

But for Southwest Colorado, Let’s Move! may not have helped as much as highlighted, providing a stark contrast in resources devoted to tribal health. Southern Ute children, whose tribe has vast financial resources, are offered many ways to be active, while some in the Ute Mountain Ute tribe say the future looks bleak.

“We have 247 (diagnosed) diabetics on our reservation and two are Type 1 juvenile diabetes,” said Rita King, of the Ute Mountain Ute’s Sleeping Ute Diabetes Prevention Program in Towaoc. “Diabetes happens at a young age, and now we’re experiencing that. … It’s pretty scary, so we’re trying to reach out to our youth more.”

Native American children have the highest obesity rate in the nation – 21 percent – and are twice as likely to be overweight as the general population, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Like other Let’s Move! programs, Let’s Move! in Indian Country aims to lower the obesity rate by encouraging breast-feeding; offering nutritious school food; increasing local farming for access to nutritious, affordable and traditional food; and giving children 60 minutes of exercise each day.

Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said the program has been a success nationwide.

“We have seen an incredible response from people in tribal communities who want to make a difference for the health of their kids,” Darling said. “That’s what has defined Let’s Move! in Indian Country in our first year – people stepping up, from wherever they are, to create solutions that work for their communities.”

But in Towaoc, King said, leaders need to speak up.

“The youth look to the elders and they want to see what they do, and if the elder isn’t going to care for themselves and do what’s right, they’re not going to do that, too,” King said. “Nobody’s saying these things, and especially if a top official’s not saying anything, we’re just going to live how we want and eat how we want.”

Obama and her program encourage local farming, and there has been some talk about starting a Ute Mountain community garden. As in every lifestyle change, however, commitment is key, and King said tribe members show little interest in cheap, accessible produce.

“If we get it started, there needs to be people there to watch it, to water it, make sure there’s no weeds. … It’s just hard to get those kinds of people to stay on top of it,” King said. “We tell people vegetables are good for them, and they say it costs money. With a community garden, they wouldn’t have to go up to the store and purchase that – it would be right there for them if they wanted to use it.”

Much of Southwest Colorado is classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert,” an area with little or no access to affordable, healthy foods. This includes much of Montezuma County and the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, where fast food has become a staple.

“Things have become modern,” King said. “People just kind of slack off, and they know they can just drive up to Sonic, get that fast meal and go home and feed their kids. It’s nothing like sitting down and having a family meal anymore like it used to be years ago.”

King said it’s crucial to teach kids about portion control along with the traditions. Native American fry breads – often topped with honey and powdered sugar – can be made smaller, with less sugar and using cooking spray rather than grease.

“You can show them what size they can eat and still enjoy that fry bread because you can’t totally take everything away from them,” King said.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is working toward more physical activity. About 80 people participate in Zumba, offered twice a week, though most who attend are not tribal members. King also said a few families on the reservation walk or ride bikes after dinner.

The Ute Mountain Recreation Center held its first “Biggest Loser” competition in the spring, where participants lost a total of more than 450 pounds.

Darling said the diabetes program in Towaoc is “exceptional in promoting healthy practices.”

In May, it held Four Corners Walking Together for Healthier Nations, a 19.5-mile walk that brought together nearly 500 members of Four Corners tribes to promote health and unity, King said.

Eighty miles away in Ignacio, Let’s Move! standards have furthered an already high priority on teaching childhood health. The Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy began its own health initiative six years ago but now uses Let’s Move! recommendations, as well.

“We took all fried potato products – french fries, tater tots – off the menu,” said Char Schank, Head Start and Early Head Start director at the academy. “We went to 1 percent milk, which I believe is something the food program recommended as well, and we’re just committed to serving fresh fruits and vegetables as much as we can.”

The academy follows a variety of Let’s Move! food guidelines, such as a sugar-free policy, serving tribally raised and butchered bison as its primary red meat and sustainable “Farm-to-School” produce. Students are encouraged to bring vegetables and dip and other healthy snacks as birthday treats rather than cupcakes or candy, Schank said.

The obesity rate of students at the academy has dropped from 17 percent to 2 percent since 2006, and Schank said Let’s Move! has helped encourage fun, physical classroom activities in the last year as well.

“Seeing families who have had several children in our program make the trend to healthier lifestyles … that’s more of a success story than anything,” she said.

SunUte fitness manager Robin Duffy-Wirth said she believes the tribe cares greatly about exercise and places a strong emphasis on helping kids become active. From housing the Boys & Girls Club, to holding “active day care,” to giving swim lessons to more than 1,000 kids each year, Duffy-Wirth said the center reflects the tribe’s effort to live healthfully.

“There is no better place than the Southern Ute tribe to see what a tribe can do,” Duffy-Wirth said. “We offer real role models, and we offer a safe, fun place for the kids to be. If kids feel like SunUte is their home, then we’ve already won the battle.”

SunUte offers a 50,000-square-foot pool, exercise equipment, indoor courts, outdoor fields and playgrounds. All services, including personal training, are unlimited and free for tribe members.

“One of the primary goals is to expose the kids to these different physical activities and then have that become a part of their everyday culture of living,” Duffy-Wirth said.

Though Duffy-Wirth said Let’s Move! has not affected SunUte’s programs, she said Obama’s effort to raise awareness is crucial to combating the fast-food juggernaut in America.

“These mixed messages are literally killing us,” Duffy-Wirth said. “When you see what these companies and this food does to our nation as a health risk, that’s where I think a bigger fight has to happen.”

Rachel Karas is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. Reach her at rkaras@durangoherald.com.

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