Foam balls were flying around the gym at Puente de Hozho Bilingual Magnet school last Tuesday. Around 50 Flagstaff children from Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and a host of other Native American backgrounds ran, jumped and laughed as they tried to avoid getting hit.
“We play a lot of games,” said Caleb Russell, 8, who is going into third grade at Killip Elementary School, as he took a breather.
Although the children spent all day running at northern Arizona’s first-ever Wings of America Running and Fitness Camp, they still had the energy for a marathon game of Proball.
“They’ll tell you they’re hot and they’re tired and that it hurts, but if you teach them a new game and you give them an opportunity to chase each other, it’s amazing how much more they’ll run,” said Wings of America Program Director Dustin Martin.
The two-day Wings of America camp was the first part of Flagstaff’s inaugural Native Strong Health and Wellness Conference, a free, week-long summer program designed by Native Americans for Community Action. Its purpose is to combat childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes in Native American children by teaching them to lead healthy, active lives.
Marian Bitsui is the program manager for NACA’s Full Circle project, which is researching factors and causes for Type 2 diabetes and obesity in Native American youth in Flagstaff. She created NACA’s Native Strong Health and Wellness Conference after receiving a grant from the Notah Begay III Foundation.
“For me, it was really astounding as far as the numbers went for Native American youth,” Bitsui said. “When we first applied for (the grant), one out of three Native American youth were obese.”
In addition, according to research published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Indian Health Service, the Type 2 diabetes rate among Native American and Alaska Native youths between the ages of 10 and 19 is nine times higher than for white youths.
Bitsui said she wants the Native Strong program to not only give children the tools to be healthy, but raise awareness within their families and community.
“I feel very strongly that intervention is great when it happens but prevention is better,” Bitsui said.
Titania Lewis sent two of her children to the camp.
“I try to educate them on diabetes, specifically Type 2 because that’s the one that is more common,” she said. “It runs in the Native American (population), along with my family. I want them to learn how to prevent that and that it is preventable.”
During the first two days of the conference, the children spent their mornings running from Puente de Hozho to Bushmaster Park and back. Afterward, the kids got to play group games that kept them active.
Martin also taught them about great Native American runners, like Hopi Olympian Lewis Tewanima; professional football hall of famer, baseball player and Olympian Jim Thorpe; Oglala Lakota Olympic gold-medalist Billy Mills; and modern-day Navajo running star Alvina Begay. Afterward, many of the children said they wanted to be runners.
“When it comes to indigenous kids in particular, it’s important for us to hold running-focused workshops because we have a very strong history and heritage associated with running that, as far as I’m concerned, we’re obligated to protect,” Martin said.
Bitsui said the children could learn a lot by talking to their grandparents.
”Traditionally, Natives are raised to wake up early and greet the sun," she said.
The next three days of the conference included a variety of activities, from Zumbakids to hands-on lessons about healthy foods, then making their own.
Aviana Scharfenberger, 8, who is going into third grade at Knoles Elementary School, said she learned a lot about eating healthy food at the conference.
“It makes you strong and you get to get tall,” Scharfenberger said, adding that she wants to be tall someday.
But it wasn’t all about diet and exercise. The students also learned about their personality types, leadership, teamwork, recognizing and coping with emotions and self-esteem.
“The physical health and the mental health are so integrated that you can’t fix the physical if you don’t fix the emotional and mental well-being of someone,” said NACA Director of Community Development Brandy Judson.
Bitsui added that the holistic approach was based on the Native American logic of the Medicine Wheel, in which a person's spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical aspects each have their own season. She also wanted to incorporate the idea that each child has a place in their community.
“I learned about healthy foods, teamwork, sportsmanship and staying healthy with family,” said Michaela Salabye, 12, who is going to be an eighth-grader at Basis Flagstaff. “I think the most important was staying together as a team and working together.”
The conference included education for parents. On the last day, the children’s families got to join them for a resource fair, award ceremony and a talk from Waylan Pahona, founder of the Facebook group Healthy Active Natives, which has more than 50,000 followers.
“All these different things, historical trauma, some people take it as a negative, but I take it as a positive because it’s molded us to be very strong in the things that we endure in our everyday lives,” Pahona said.
Ultimately, the message the conference had for the kids was to get out and be active.
“They have an outdoor sanctuary available to them that is unsurpassed in a lot of ways," Martin said. "They should really take advantage of that."