A group of four from the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona are walking their way to a difference in the way Americans - both native and non-native - live and eat.
In summer 2008, Terrol Dew Johnson began a 3,000-mile walk from Maine to Arizona, along with several family members, "to promote, but also bring awareness to, diabetes in native communities and in non-native communities." This July, after wintering in Connecticut, they embarked once again and expect to complete their journey - weather and weary-leg permitting - by December, hoping to leave a lasting impression on an increasingly unhealthy country while imparting an important lesson to a growing number of diabetics.
Recently, Johnson and his fellow walkers passed through Chautauqua County - stopping over in the village of Fredonia to stay with hosts Robert and Donna Paganelli for a few days - on their way back home to the Tohono O'odham Territory. The second-largest Native American Territory in the United States, with a population of around 28,000, Johnson said the community suffers from an alarming rate of type 2 diabetes.
"In my tribe, we are the largest group in the entire world with type 2 diabetes," he explained. "Kids as young as 4 years old are getting diabetes - type 2."
Joined by his niece and nephew, Maray and Shane Johnson, as well as his friend Frances Segundo-Lopez, the group has walked 700 miles so far along their 3,000-mile journey toward wellness.
A type 2 diabetic himself, Johnson said he's already lost 50 pounds over the course of the walk, emphasizing the connection between daily exercise, weight loss, proper diet, and managing one's diabetes. In fact, he said the group has been eating at roadside fruit and vegetable stands as much as possible during the walk.
"It's a lifestyle change and it's a learning process, especially for the young people," he explained.
Driven by the astonishing prevalence of diabetes in native - and non-native - peoples, Johnson said the group has been visiting Native American communities along the way in order to spread their message and, hopefully, inspire those communities to action. In addition, he said it's an opportunity for an exchange of ideas, a means of learning how other communities have begun to address the issue, and the first step toward pooling resources and knowledge to combat the growing disease.
There are numerous initiatives taking shape on the local level aimed at addressing the growing prevalence of diabetes, especially in Native American communities, he explained
This past week, Johnson said he and his fellow walkers entered the Cattaraugus and Allegany territories and had a chance to discuss some of the major issues relating to diabetes with officials and review some of the programs which have already been established there. He said he was particularly impressed by the health care facilities and services available to Native Americans coping with diabetes.
So far, Johnson explained, his focus has been on Native American communities throughout this walk, primarily because of his heritage. However, he added, he hopes to eventually reach a broader community with the growing relevance of his message to all Americans.
"One thing that I've learned on this walk is it's not just Native Americans, it's everybody, it's non-natives as well," he said.