Original Instructions

“We’re in a generation in which people are likely to outlive their children,” says Karina L. Walters, Ph.D. She’s talking about the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma — her tribe.

Photo: Deirdre Schwiesow

Walters, the director of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington and a collaborator with the UW’s Institute of Translational Health Sciences (ITHS), is concerned; 70 percent of her people are obese or seriously overweight.

Think of the Trail of Tears, walked by the Choctaw. “Our ancestors did not die for us to be eating ourselves to death,” she says. In fact, the ancestors — in the form of “original instructions” — may provide the key to fighting today’s obesity epidemic.

Original instructions are, essentially, a tribe’s traditional customs and protocols. Walters says they are a powerful tool in working with tribes on health and wellness. “Part of our task is to bring Western tools to the table and combine that with the tribe’s knowledge to come up with a prevention program or an intervention,” she says.

That’s why she’s having the Choctaw re-walk the Trail of Tears to fight obesity.

Tribal leaders, she says, had come to her for a consultation on rising obesity. They had spent millions on health centers and clinics, and it wasn’t helping. Instead of telling people what not to do, thought Walters, what if we motivate the community to act?

To that end, she and the tribe have designed a pilot program, one slated to begin in 2012. Participants will re-map the Trail of Tears. They will also consider some thoughtful questions about health and wellness: what did the ancestors do so they could survive? What are the original instructions with regard to their relationship with medicine? What did the ancestors hope for their health?

In addition to connecting people to the past, Walters plans to connect them to the future. For instance, youth ambassadors will document the walk with video and social media, and they’ll help researchers and elders come up with a new vision for fighting obesity for the next seven generations.

It’s this type of creative problem-solving that Walters and her colleagues will bring to their work with the ITHS’s Tribal Community Outreach & Research Translation Core.

“I think it’ll make both our groups incredibly stronger,” says Walters.

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