Cherokee Nation Chief Rides for a Cure
Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, is leading by doing: He biked 25 miles this June in the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure in Tulsa, Okla., as the cycling fund-raiser's celebrity rider. Smith has taken healthy living very seriously for years, so stepping up to partner with the ADA for the ride was important to him.
Smith, 61, has seen how diabetes can affect a community: Almost 17 percent of Native Americans have diabetes—that's more than twice the rate among whites. And the number of teens with diabetes is on the rise: American Indians ages 15 to 19 saw a 68 percent increase in diabetes from 1994 to 2004. Smith has seen the disease close up, too, beginning with an elderly basket maker he met during his childhood. The woman's family members would bring her to town to sell her wares, where Smith would see her.
"One time she came into town, she had an amputation [of] her foot," he remembers. "Months later, she'd come to town selling her baskets and she'd lost that leg up to the knee. Finally, the last time I saw her, [her family] would help her in and out of the car on this flat board to get her to her wheelchair. It not only affected the individual but affected the entire family."
That image stays with Smith as he encourages his family and his community to be healthier, from launching the Cherokee Challenge (a campaign to promote healthy eating and exercise) to taking part in foot races around Oklahoma. It wasn't his health that brought him to cycling, though: It was a 950-mile Remember the Removal Ride with teenagers and leaders from the Cherokee Nation, retracing the Trail of Tears, the path his ancestors took when they were forced from their land in the American South toward present-day Oklahoma. On that journey, Smith connected with members of his community and found that biking was an enjoyable form of exercise. He has also passed the cycling bug on to his 18-year-old daughter, Anaweg Smith, who will be doing the ride this year. "Riding a bike is a good diversion from running or a workout with weights," he says. "You really have to find all sorts of ways to keep your incentive [to exercise] up."
For Smith, Tour de Cure was a chance to show his community a way to be healthier and to spotlight the need to stop diabetes. The disease affects 1 in 6 people in Oklahoma. Some 10.2 percent of Cherokees have diabetes (a considerably smaller percentage than some Native American tribes), according to figures from Cherokee Nation Businesses, which runs multiple diabetes clinics and prevention programs. Yet diabetes is much more common in older age groups, says Whitney Pancoast, a Cherokee Nation Businesses spokeswoman. She says diabetes affects about 24 percent of Cherokee patients 50 to 60 years old and 31 percent of those 60 to 80 years old.
Because of this, Smith has made diabetes education and research a priority. Cherokee Nation Businesses has donated $1.5 million to the University of Oklahoma for diabetes research, and it regularly teams up with the ADA for prevention and treatment programs, says Lauren Teague, associate manager of the Association's East Oklahoma office.
What's more, Smith is working to educate his community about the dangers of diabetes and to promote healthy lifestyle changes that will benefit everyone, whether they have diabetes or not. The next step, he says, is motivating people of all ages to take care of their health. "We have to find a way to market better choices. We have to find that emotional connection to the results and the consequences," he says. "It's going to come back to an intergenerational drive: If you really care about your children, here's how you'll lead by example."
Teague says people like Smith can help make diabetes awareness and healthy living top priorities in a community. The work of Cherokee Nation Businesses with the ADA will benefit many Oklahomans, she adds. "We're thankful to have them as partners for our events and for awareness, because there are so many Cherokee citizens in this area," Teague says. "It's very good to have that voice from Chief Smith especially, for him to say, 'I'm not a professional cyclist, but I think this is a valuable cause, and I'm taking that step . . . and you can too.' "
For more information about Tour de Cure, click here.