ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Notah Begay III is fighting the growing problem of diabetes among Native-American youth, saying the disease could ultimately cost tribes their future leaders if nothing is done.
Begay took his wellness message to the airwaves Friday during the national Native America Calling radio program and in a television show that was broadcast via satellite to students in nearly 200 schools across Indian Country.
Part Navajo and part pueblo Indian, the 38-year-old golfer said diabetes has become an epidemic among his people but he wants people to know it’s a disease that can be prevented.
“We’re in a fight, literally, to save our kids’ lives,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “The reassuring thing about this entire thing is that this is a fight we can win, but it’s not going to come without some monumental change.”
Native Americans are more than twice as likely to have diabetes compared with other groups, and they are three times more likely to die from the disease, according to the Indian Health Service.
Another troubling statistic is the percentage of Indian youth who have the disease has increase by more than two-thirds in just a decade, according to the agency.
Begay knows the statistics, and he doesn’t have to look far to see that they are real.
His mother gives herself shots every morning, and one of his cousins lost her foot to complications of the disease.
“It’s not a beautiful outcome when you contract this,” he said during the radio program. “So the thing that drives me most is that it’s preventable. I couldn’t tell you how to prevent cancer. I can’t tell you how to prevent leukemia. Type 2 diabetes, I guarantee you I can help you prevent that.”
A four-time PGA Tour winner, Begay is issuing a challenge to Indian youth to follow his example by exercising every day and eating healthy.
The challenge is part of the work being done by the golfer’s charity, the NB3 Foundation, which has a goal of fighting obesity and diabetes among Native-American youth. The foundation is developing programs aimed specifically at helping native youth and at encouraging more tribal leaders to set an example.
Begay, a graduate of Stanford and a three-time All-American, is also getting help from some of his friends in the sporting world.
PGA Tour stars Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler will tee up alongside NFL quarterbacks Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys and Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams in the Notah Begay Challenge this summer in New York.
The best-ball shootout is the foundation’s chief fundraiser. The event has raised more than $1 million in each of the past two years.
Begay’s efforts are known across Indian Country, as evidenced by the calls coming in to the radio station Friday morning. He heard from listeners from New Mexico all the way to South Dakota.
The golfer said one of the keys to fighting diabetes and getting Native Americans more active is heightening awareness, whether it’s through celebrity or big events like the golf tournament.
“We’re not trying to win a popularity contest,” he acknowledged. “We’re trying to save lives. When our kids are dying at younger ages, we’re losing our leaders and we’re also losing the carriers of the tradition and the culture who are supposed to push that forward for us.”
Begay thinks about his 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Their reality, he said, is more vegetables, salads, hardly any sugar and no sodas.
“That’s in effect what we’re trying to do – create a new reality for our young kids, a reality of hope,” he said.
For Begay, his busy schedule of interviews, meetings, golf clinics and practice doesn’t stand in the way of him finding a half-hour for yoga and exercise. Sometimes, that exercise comes in the form of walking 5 miles to finish a game of 18 holes.
One radio caller suggested Begay “step it up” and carry his own clubs. Begay smiled and said he just might have to do that.
Begay is gearing up for a busy tournament schedule in Canada. His goal is to return to full-time status on the PGA Tour by next year.
“I think I still have some good golfing years left in me,” he said.