Huge Turnout At 2007 Rez Rally

By Susan Etxebarria

BRIGHTON — The Seminole Tribe’s Rez Rally, an event becoming famous throughout Indian Country, attracted an enthusiastic crowd of runners and walkers again.

The Rez Rally is now in its seventh year, with more youth than ever participating. Growing as a spectacular family event to reinforce good diet and exercise for the control of diabetes, the number one killer among Native Americans, the Rez Rally contributes to the Tribe’s major goal of reversing this disease among Florida Seminoles.

The approximately 1,500 people participating in the event on Jan. 20 were motivated to achieve a healthier and successful life by one of the foremost role models among Native Americans, Billy Mills. Mills, a Sioux from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was a gold medal winner in the 10,000 metres run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

As the keynote speaker, Mills poetically and dramatically described how he shocked the world when he came from behind to win the gold medal in Tokyo. At the time, he set a world record and he is still the only American to ever win a gold medal in the 10,000 meters. No better speaker than this, a man who also battled diabetes, could have impressed so effectively to the youth the importance of good nutrition and exercise.

Mills earned a track scholarship to the University of Kansas and later served as an officer in the Marine Corps. But his early life on the reservation was very difficult, he told the youth. He was orphaned, poor and, like many others, he endured constant and hostile acts of prejudice at a time in the U.S. when most people of color were denied their basic rights and human dignity.

At the Rez Rally, there are four basic categories further divided into ages and sexes. They are: walkers, runners, wheelchairs and strollers. Before he spoke, Mills began the day at 8:15 a.m. at the starting line of each race by announcing “Runners ready!” and then blowing the horn for the races to start.

In the earlier morning hours between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. the participants arrived at the rodeo grounds. Brighton graciously and magnificently rolled out the red carpet with a buffet of energizing snacks along with hot coffee and beverages, and later a healthy lunch catered by Dominick’s of Ft. Pierce.

Team members from all the reservations at Hollywood, Ft. Pierce, Tampa, Brighton, Immokalee and Naples were registered before prayer was offered by Pastor Wonder Johns under the huge white tent. Tribal officials welcomed the participants, rules of the rally were read by the emcee, John Madrigal.

“We are here today to work together in the fight against diabetes,” announced Madrigal. “For those of us who have diabetes we can better handle our diabetes by walking.”

Trophies and plaques to be awarded at the end of the day were laid out on display at tables in front of the stage. For many Tribal athletes it was a chance to prove their speed and endurance while for others just being there, walking or running the course, was an achievement. Every year a trophy is awarded to the reservation that has the largest turnout and it is a matter of pride to win.

The competitive spirit for the walks and runs was rallied by Chairman Mitchell Cypress.

“Today we will see who has been running and walking and who will win the trophy,” said Cypress at the opening remarks.

Cypress has always been a strong supporter of the Tribe’s Diabetes Prevention Program and an extraordinary example to the Tribal members. Himself a diabetic, he has learned to manage his disease through rigorous fitness and diet allowing him to stay on top of a grueling schedule of work and travel as the leading Tribal officer.

“Throughout Indian Country other Tribes are well aware of what we are doing out here to fight diabetes, they know about this rally and we always welcome other Native Americans to come and participate. Remember, that walking just 20 minutes a day can also help prevent heart attacks,” said Cypress.

This year’s host, Brighton Council Representative Andrew Bowers, welcomed the participants.

“Brighton is glad to be the host this year,” he said. “We’re not really here competing against each other as much as we are here to defeat the number one enemy of our people: diabetes. We are in this fight together.”

The five minute warm-up of pre-race stretches lead by the Seminole Tribe of Florida Fitness department had a very therapeutic effect of getting people on their feet and mentally hyped to race. Excitement was in the air, the psychic energy high, weather was cool, children were super charged.

The Health department, which organizes this yearly event along with help from the Fitness and Recreation staff, and many other volunteer committees, arranged a seamless event, more like a celebration than a workout. People seemed elated to partake in such an important happening.

After the races some runners and walkers weighed in on what it was meant to them.

“I really enjoyed it,” said Lesley Billie of Big Cypress who came in first place in her category. “I participate every year. I started walking in the rally when I was pregnant with my son, and he is 5 years old. It is very organized and the food is excellent. This rally is important because we want the Tribal members to control their diabetes.”

One of those who helps organize the event, Edna McDuffie, who works for the Health department, said she believes the Rez Rally is making an impact. Especially, when it gets people training weeks in advance for the event.

“We have more people walking in the community before and after an event like this. If each year we get just a few more people motivated to walk we are doing our job,” she said. “The rally is also another chance to get together and socialize with people you don’t see that often. Today we have tribal members from all the reservations and we are all kin so it is it fun to get around and talk.”

A guest from the Creek Tribe of Oklahoma, Roley Johnson, participated for the first time.

”I think it is a great thing for the Seminole Tribe to do; to think of their Tribe’s health,” said Johnson. “You don’t see this much participation where I come from; not this big of a turnout.”

His brother, Clarence Johnson, said he was happy to see more young people and more elders in the rally. It was his second year as a participant.

“This wasn’t too hard,” said Pauletta Bowers of Big Cypress who finished seventh in the 18-35 year age category of female runners. “My goal is to be healthy and take care of myself. Also, I came for the shoes!”

One of the nice features of the rally is that Nike® gives a pair of their high quality runner’s shoes to every participant who completes the Rally course. Sam McCracken of the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation in Montana announced that 16 volunteers came out to the reservation from various Nike® stores in Florida to help pass out the shoes. McCracken works for Nike® as their Native American Representative.

“We hope Nike® is doing its part to help this rally continue to grow,” McCracken said. “We were here at the very first one when there were 400 shoes given out.”

While walking the grounds and surrounded by fans, the guest speaker, Mills, commented that the Rez Rally “is a very empowering event.” He said the Rally empowers people to become responsible for their own health and to be accountable for their own health.

Director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Health Department, Connie Whidden, thanked all the participants for showing up.

“We can do all the planning and organizing but if you didn’t show up all our work and planning wouldn’t mean anything,” she said. “It is because of you that the Rally is such a success.”

During the traditional awards ceremony every individual was recognized and presented plaques and prizes before the final results were announced for the winning trophies. All the winners of the walks and races for the first, second, third and fourth place and more, were announced for each category.

The family awards were especially meaningful with first place going to the Shula Jones family of Brighton with 26 members participating; second prize to the Diane Smith family with 17 members; and the third prize going to the Alice Sweat family with 15 members.

Brighton won the trophy for the largest team turn out with a whopping 610 participants.

“I want to congratulate Brighton for claiming the First Place Trophy in the Team Category,” said President Moses Osceola. “I want to congratulate everyone for coming out. It illustrates how important it is to maintain our health.”

Hollywood Council Representative, Max Osceola, offered words of wisdom. “Long time ago our ancestors saved our Tribe. Now we need to save ourselves through proper education about diabetes and proper nutrition. As it is said ‘we fought to hard and too long to die by our own hands.”

Mills focused on how to win, no matter what your goals, when he gave his electrifying speech.

He divulged the secret of how dreams come true, revealing his own struggles as a youth growing into adulthood. He learned from his elder truths about values and virtues and how to look down deep to where your dreams lie.

“It is the pursuit of your dreams that will heal you,” he said. “That is when the body, mind and spirit works as one, and you don’t quit.”

Mills said his father gave him sage advice when he was struggling with a youth’s disappointment and sorrows. He never forgot these words:

“Look beyond the anger, hurt, jealousy, and self-hate,” Mills said. “Look deeper and find your dream, son.”

Mills said when you don’t have a dream you lose focus. You don’t care about your health.

“Your life is a gift from the Creator,” he said. “What you do with your life is your own gift back to the Creator.”