For this Native Tribe, Cycling is the Best Medicine

11/23/19
WRITTEN BY: Annalisa van den Bergh
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Editor’s Note: This content was republished from Miles of Portraits with the permission of the author. Miles of Portraits, created by T1Ds Annalisa van den Bergh and Erik Douds is a photo and film series that documents humanity, one bicycle ride at a time.


As a Type 1 diabetic, I’ve come to realize that I prefer to place my Dexcom Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) where people can see it; on my arm or thigh rather than my stomach. That’s because it’s a great conversation starter and an educational prompt. Living with Type 1 diabetes (T1D) means doing all the work for my non-functioning pancreas. While these devices are what keep us alive and remind us of this life-threatening disease we live with, they are also tremendously empowering beacons we can point to and identify with.

Which is precisely what happens on my last bike tour this spring as I cycle up a hill in southern California and a road biker glides by me, doing the usual cyclist-to-cyclist check-in.

I give the thumbs up, he keeps pedaling but then slams on his brakes when he sees the Dexcom sensor on my arm.

“You’re a [Type 1] diabetic! ME TOO!”

We cycle harder to catch up with my cycling partner Erik, who also has T1D and later learns that his name is James Stout and he is a former pro cyclist who has raced across America with Team Type 1. James is the founder of the Diabetes Community Empowerment Project, an organization that empowers Native American communities like the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson to live healthier and happier lives through cycling.

Years ago, during his time training in Tucson, AZ and frequently riding through the reservation, he noticed the high number of Native Americans living with diabetes and started thinking about ways he could use his own T1D diagnosis and love of cycling to help.

 


Iris

Iris is the bubbly cheerleader of the group and along with her wife Victoria, is a certified League Cycling Instructor. A hardworking custodian, she dedicates her free time to lead Team Yaqui and keep the group active year-round. She’s one of those people who is always looking out for you, handing a kid their asthma inhaler at a stop sign, leaving me with energy bars as we hug goodbye, and constantly belting out words of encouragement as she passes riders.

“I don’t have diabetes but I’m a big woman. I feel that cycling has helped me with that. I have had weight issues and it’s easier to manage when you cycle. We all know someone or our own family and friends have diabetes and I see what can happen. We are at risk if we do not become active and be aware of our diets.”


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans hold the highest rates of type 2 diabetes (T2D) of any ethnic group in the United States. 30% of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe are diagnosed with T2D.

A few months later, I email James asking if I can write and photograph a story on Team Yaqui for a story for Miles of Portraits. In September of this year, the stars align for a flight to Tucson and a couple rides with the group, lead by Iris Coronado.

I give James a hug in the parking lot of the tribe’s Wellness Center and meet Iris who’s got the biggest smile. James, who has also become the group’s mentor, drove here from San Diego. His pick up truck is packed with gear and a plethora of helmets leftover from reviews he’s written for cycling publications.

Music blasts as kids and their parents start trickling in for the after school 5-mile youth ride around the reservation. Iris gathers the crowd, goes over hand signals, and checks that everyone’s got their lights on. At golden hour, we start cycling out of the parking lot towards the main road and past a huge casino –– the reservation’s biggest industry.

 

 


Manse

“Riding my first mile was hard! Sweating and breathless, I never gave up. Today I can ride 35 miles and I’m happy with myself. I have [type 2] diabetes and have been off medication for over a year and a half. I have to exercise and eat more greens, fruits, nuts, and teas.

The hardest part about having diabetes is it’s expensive. I keep away from canned foods [and look for] fresh or dry foods. My message is, ‘it matters what we eat.’ We dirty and damage or bodies because everything on the market is considered safe to ingest. Not true!

Riding with the group has helped me manage my diabetes. The group is supportive and inspiring. We are family.”


 

Team Yaqui’s slogan is, “Fighting diabetes one mile at a time.” It’s a condition that every cyclist has some sort of connection to whether they have diabetes themselves, have a family member or friend who lives with it, or have lost someone to it. Team Yaqui is growing by the month as more and more tribe members are realizing the lingering risks of diabetes and the tremendous benefits of movement –– especially together

Iris keeps the energy high with her constant cheers of encouragement. As day turns to night, the clump of cyclists ahead of me looks like a Christmas tree, their backlights glistening in the night. I learn later that they’ve pedaled this loop so many times that the reservation has painted in bike paths.

We return to the parking lot and head into the Wellness Center where the local motorcycle club has surprised the cyclists with pizza and two brand new bicycles for a couple of the tribe’s youngest members. “I appreciate the group because everyone takes care of each other,” Minnie, a city councilwoman for the tribe tells me later in an email.

 


Minnie

Minnie, a city councilwoman for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, started riding with the group at El Tour de Tucson in 2018.

“I love riding with the group. They give me the inspiration to keep moving and to live a healthier and active life. I especially appreciate the diversity of the group – different ages with different roles in our community. But what brings us together is a commitment to wellness through cycling. Cycling is fun and group cycling makes it even better, especially with the kids! They are AWESOME!”


Kodi

“I was shy at first but to me, it’s just like a big family now. I was only used to doing seven miles a week before. Now I’m used to doing 20. I can’t wait until I can start saying bigger numbers!” says Kodi.


 

The next morning, riders training for El Tour de Tucson, happening this November 23rd meet back at the parking lot for a longer ride through Tucson Mountain Park. Minnie picks me and my bike up at 5:00 am. We reunite with the group and cycle out of the Wellness Center parking lot at 6:00 am – just in time to beat the brutal Arizona heat. The sun rises as we ride uphill towards Old Tucson. James wizzes up and down the span of the group of about 20 people, always checking on us.

We pass saguaro cacti and sweeping mountain views. At a water stop, Manse, who seems to be the mother of the group, stops to take in her surroundings. She tells me how much of an emphasis Native people put on respecting their land and the nature around them; how we are all visitors here.

We finally reach Old Tucson, a movie set and theme park just outside of the city that marks our turn around point. Everyone is elated and I take their picture as they wave the tribe’s flag at the entrance sign. Iris turns up the music and pulls out a cooler from the sag wagon with a vegetable platter, Gatorade, and water. This group celebrates each other. There’s a reason people keep coming back for more.

 


Victoria

Victoria cycles because it’s addictive. She started riding with her wife, Iris. “It was ‘our thing’ to do together.” A favorite hobby that’s gotten her from 15 to 40 miles has grown into something bigger than themselves.

“I have lost many friends and family to diabetes. It’s very traumatic for me to see many people lose limbs and their vision. This community helps us to bring our blood sugars down, bonds us, and is the social medicine that our community enjoys.”

 


Antonio

“I cycle because it helps me become more active and keeps me from being on my phone all day!”


Unfortunately, in the T1D community, there are many people who are adamant about making it crystal clear that T2D is a completely separate disease than T1D, that T1D is the more serious kind, and that, “we did nothing wrong to get it.” People like James and this community are proof that T1Ds and T2Ds ought to stick together and lift each other up instead. It’s the best medicine.

 

 

 

 

 


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http://www.nativeexerciseempowermentproject.com/

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