Known in the late 1800s as Hell’s Forty Acres because of a plethora of dismal health conditions, Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation is now much larger—and becoming a lot healthier.
Residents of San Carlos’s four distinct reservation districts, which span three counties and cover 1.8 million acres, suffer from the same health problems encountered by other tribes—poor nutrition and too little physical activity.
“We want to change that,” says Fitness Center Manager Isaiah Belknap, who is now in his eighth year of diabetes-prevention efforts. “We’ve always struggled trying to find ways to pay for sports camps, walks and runs, and with recent budget cuts at state and school-district levels, physical-education programs have been dropped for younger kids. While outreach and education have a foot in the door with state primary schools, what I’ve noticed is that the Head Start program doesn’t have anything for these youngsters, and it’s vital for 3- to 5-year-olds to learn the benefits of physical fitness.”
The latest step forward came in August with a $10,000 grant from Nike N7, makers of the Air Native N7 performance shoe built to specific foot shapes of American Indians. “We were thrilled to receive Nike’s check for $10,000 to be used for youth, sports development and physical activity,” says Velda Williams, executive director of the San Carlos Apache Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s an acknowledgement of what we’re trying to do.”
Belknap, who wrote the funding request, was similarly enthusiastic: “This makes our job so much easier. It’s a bridge—a step up—to where we want to go with the fitness-center portion of our tribal Diabetes Prevention Program.”
There are at least 250 students in the age group who will benefit initially from the funds to be spent on supplies, equipment and programs. “Aside from our walks, runs and perhaps a weekend basketball tournament, the tribe doesn’t have any other developed recreational programs, and there’s nothing here to keep kids physically active,” Belknap says. But, he added, that will soon change.
“We’re going to start right away,” he says. He cited “15-to-30-minute physical-activity classes under the SPARKS [Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids] program, jumping jacks, running and motor-skills involvement—things like throwing and kicking a ball—all designed to burn calories and build muscle.”
Although new to grant requests (he has written four and been awarded two), Belknap is already planning to apply to Nike next year for additional funding. “We’d like to help support youth leagues in our community, everything from basketball to baseball to soccer. There’s nothing developed here yet, and I’d like to be in the forefront of getting kids in their early teens more active through sports.”
(Happily, the tribe’s health department owns acreage in Point of Pines high-mountain country that would be an ideal location for summertime sports or running camps.)
Like elsewhere in Indian country, diabetes is a problem at San Carlos. According to the latest published statistical reports, about 10 to 15 percent of the tribe suffers from the disease. “Getting accurate numbers here is difficult because while 15 percent of the population may already have been diagnosed, Indian Health Service officials figure there could be another 15 to 20 percent that have the disease but have not come forward to be examined and diagnosed,” Belknap says.
And so, far from resting on his laurels, he is looking for the next health-care challenge. “With the Nike funding helping us in the exercise arena,” he says, “I plan to collaborate with other diabetes-prevention program community outreach and education efforts to work on instruction and motivation. Head Start has a system of meeting with parents. So on top of kids learning physical activity, we’ll be doing presentations to parents concerning [physical education] and nutrition.”
All in all, Belknap is upbeat. “It’s a captive audience,” he says. “We work with the kids who go home and share information with their parents—that’s 250 times two with a possible extension into extended families. We’re on our way!”