BIG CYPRESS — Good-hearted competition set the stage for the Tribe’s 16th annual diabetes awareness Rez Rally hosted at Big Cypress Reservation.
“I’m going to win,” said Dantae Russel, 12, of Immokalee, just before the start of the reservation vs. reservation Jan. 16 contest.
“No, me,” laughed Caleb Billie, 12, of Big Cypress.
“It’s me, me, me,” said Takoda Howard, 9, of Brighton, predicting that he would be first among his cousins and friends to pass the finish line.
Though nearly 400 Tribal citizens and employees turned out to compete and represent their communities, the fix was in years ago with the first “on your mark, get set, go.”
All Seminole citizens win in the long run, said Brighton Board Rep. Larry Howard as hundreds gathered at the Big Cypress airport hangar.
“We’re here today to support keeping everyone in shape so we all can live longer. It’s a win-win all around. We are the Unconquered and we aim to conquer diabetes,” Rep. Howard said.
Health Department Director Connie Whidden, who created Rez Rally in 2001, said diabetes is one of the Tribe’s main adversaries. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Native Americans throughout Indian Country get diabetes 2.7 times more than any other ethnic group.
A count of how many Seminole Tribe citizens currently battle the disease is not available, Whidden said, but she is certain that diabetes affects nearly every Seminole family. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease. People are not born with it; Type 2 is often the result of familial predisposition or obesity, unhealthy eating and not enough exercise.
“I always say that if you are Indian, you will probably get diabetes,” Whidden said. “All of us know someone who has died of it. My brother has it and most of my aunts died of diabetes complications. I think it’s safe to say that every Seminole family has at least one diabetic.”
Immokalee resident Edward Aguilar, who walked the Rez Rally route while pushing his mother, Elaine Aguilar, in a wheelchair, said he is battling Type 2 diabetes and winning the fight through diet control and regular workouts.
Having lost 60 pounds in one year, Aguilar said he was close to death and insulin dependent when he took control of the disease and began to truly live. He now holds two college degrees, works as a director at Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee, takes no medication and boasts his best physical condition.
Whidden said everyone in the Tribe should be in front of diabetes by receiving annual physicals that include vision and dental checkups.
“There are many early signs to diabetes that if we get on the right path, live carefully and eat right, we can control it,” Whidden said. Increased thirst, blurred vision, loss of feeling in feet and frequent urination are common early warning signs.
All along the event routes, which varied for walkers, seniors, strollers and runners, placards promoted healthy eating, proper exercise and regular physical checkups. Signs that decorated the airport hangar read: Pedal a bike; drink lots of water; don’t be a couch potato.
Rez Rally 2016 followed the traditional schedule. Council and Board representatives rallied participants with pep talks and a little trash talk about whose constituents would bring home the coveted awards: a basket for the most tribal team representation or a large gold cup for overall reservation participation.
This year, Brighton won for most tribal participants (by resident percentage) and Big Cypress won for overall team participation.
Before heading to the start line, Chairman James E. Billie made his “clan call.” Big Town Clan was the only clan that did not respond with hands held high, cheers or hoots, which led Chairman Billie to believe none were present. He issued a public scolding half in jest.
“Big Town, you are the only clan missing which makes this the first Rez Rally without all clans represented. I wonder where you are. Let’s see if you get your next dividend,” Chairman Billie teased.
Whidden said about 250 competitors turned out for the first Rez Rally, which was held at Big Cypress. Typically the event brings out up to 700 participants, she said, but this year the annual Native American Sports Association basketball tournament, hosted by the Tribe in Hollywood, was held on the same day as Rez Rally and attracted 30 registered teams, 10 from the Seminole Tribe alone.