As the first rays of light came over the mesa Sunday morning, Ute Mountain Ute runners prepared for the first leg of a seven-day relay run to Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort east of Flagstaff.
This is the first year that the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has been invited to participate in the event, Running in Beauty for a Stronger and Healthier Navajo Nation. This week Ute, Hopi and Navajo runners will cover more than 400 miles during the fourth annual noncompetitive event.
As part of the opening ceremonies in Towaoc, the vice president of the Navajo Nation, Rex Lee Jim, addressed the need for Native Americans to combat health disparities.
“This is not a race because this is running for life, for health, you’re running for your family, you’re running for your communities and for your nation. As Indian nations we need to relearn how to be healthy,” he said.
The director of Indian Health Services, Yvette Roubideaux ,also addressed the crowd on the success of health initiatives across Indian Country to combat obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Indian Health Services reports show that Native Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be diagnosed with diabetes.
“We’re actually showing with the Special Diabetes Program for Indians that you can prevent diabetes and you can treat it to prevent the complications. That’s a lot of great hope for everybody,” she said.
The ceremonies including a mile-and-half awareness walk drew people from Montezuma Creek, Utah and Sheep Springs, N.M.
During the first leg of the race from Towaoc to Aneth 16 Ute Mountian Ute runners were signed up to run two miles each along a dirt road that was once an ancestral walking path, said Eddie Scott Yazzie, a representative of the Navajo Nation’s Special Diabetes Project. Navajo runners planned to continue running from Aneth to Bluff on Sunday.
Runners were encouraged to run more than two miles to support the official runner and about 30 people left from Towaoc shortly after 7 a.m. to run the first three miles together.
The group was led by marathon runner Gordan Hammond, the director of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Energy Administration. Hammond helped organize runners locally and said he was pleasantly surprised by the level of interest.
Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Hart urged the Special Diabetes Project during the ceremonies to keep presenting ideas to encourage the movement toward creating a healthier community.
“We’re here to take this challenge on,” he said.