Dennis Banks, Ojibwa, took the podium and raised a bag of produce. “Fruit and vegetables are my way of life until I go to the creator,” said Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement, which lead the first “The Longest Walk” in 1978 and “The Longest Walk 2” in 2008. “Something is terribly wrong with our diet–the worst diet in America coming from a country with the best source of food. We have a big job, but let us show other communities that we are all in great danger.”
Echoing Bank’s warning and encouragement, Chief Harry “Goodwolf” Kindness, an Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin psychic and spiritual seer who has journeyed coast to coast four times to raise awareness of diabetes in Indian country, joined Banks to speak. “We are the ambassadors for all who have diabetes,” he said.
American Indians and health advocates left La Jolla, California, on February 14, embarking on the Longest Walk 3, a 5,400-mile walk-run-ride relay across the country to draw awareness to the diabetes epidemic among American Indians. Approximately 14.2 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population aged 20 years or older, receiving treatment from the Indian Health Service, are diagnosed diabetic, according to 2005 statistics by the U.S. Department of Human and Health Service’s Office of Minority Health, published in September 2010. American Indians in southern Arizona suffer the highest rates of diabetes at 29.3 percent. “Diabetes is one of the most critical health issues facing Native Americans today,” said Bobby Wallace, an event organizer and member of the Barona Band of Mission Indians. “Our feet will likely be aching at the end of this walk but every step we take will bring us one step closer to eradicating diabetes among our fellow tribal members and others afflicted with the disease.”
Banks, who will host this year’s longest walk again, was once hospitalized due to serious diabetes complications. But through transformative diet and exercise, Banks says he reversed the debilitating effects of the disease, and now he spreads awareness and hope to American Indians from the west coast to Washington D.C. and beyond that by proactively leading healthy lifestyles, it is possible to stop the deadly trend. A trim Sycuan Tribal Chairman Danny Tucker, who now watches his diet, exemplifies that transformation. “I used to weight 347 pounds, was a full blown diabetic shooting 90 units in the morning and 90 at night. At midnight I’d have a bologna sandwich and cupcakes. This walk is important because this disease hurts us all and especially Native Americans.”
The morning of February 14 began with a healthy breakfast of fruit, hot oatmeal and yogurt. Nearly 200 participants gathered for the kickoff event in La Jolla, including representatives of the Indian Health Service, Southern Indian Health and Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health Inc. Jampel, a Buddhist Monk from Washington State plans to complete the walk to D. C. “I’m Choctaw, and my mother has diabetes and my sister is borderline. So I think it’s a good idea to promote awareness,” he said.
For many American Indians, finding the will power to change stems from believing it is possible to stop the rampant disease. “This is a plague that some Native Americans feel is inevitable,” said Lisa M. Turner, president of Nutrition Council of California Indian Clinics. She wants American Indians to embrace a new mentality about conquering diabetes. “They have to understand it’s not like a broken leg where medicine can heal it. They have to make it a lifestyle change. This Walk, Dennis Banks and others who have shown this disease is reversible. [It] is great because it gives everyone hope.”