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Actor Martin Sensmeier and SRPMIC member Alton Villegas. Both testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Photo submitted by SRPMIC Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.

U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing Includes SRPMIC Voices

On March 29, two Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Alton Villegas and Rachel Seepie were two of six witnesses urging the committee to reauthorize the federal Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI). Villegas is an 11-year-old student, and Seepie is the senior fitness specialist for the Community’s Diabetes Prevention Program.

The other witnesses who testified were Chris Buchanan, acting director of the Indian Health Service; actor Martin Sensmeier (Tlingit/Koyukon-Athabascan); National Indian Health Board Chair Vinton Hawley; and Fort Berthold (N.D.) Diabetes Program Director Jared Eagle.

Congress authorized the Special Diabetes Program for Indians in 1997, and it’s up for reauthorization in September of this year.

“Native youth are reportedly nine times [more likely] than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes—and the related complications of heart disease, kidney failure and other diseases,” said U.S. Senator and committee chairman John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) in his hearing remarks. “This program has demonstrated significant inroads in reducing diabetes and its complications, such as limb amputations, heart disease and kidney failure. However, there is still more work to be done. Indian people have a greater chance of being diagnosed with diabetes than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. It is the fifth leading cause of death for Native people.”

Alton Villegas’s testimony

“Good Afternoon, Senators. My name is Alton Villegas. I am 11 years old, actually almost 12. I am the oldest brother in my family. I have two good friends, Lorenzo and James.

(L-R) Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Rachel Seepie, President Delbert Ray, Sr., Community member Alton Villegas, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), SRPMIC Council members Thomas Largo, Sr., and Michael Dallas, Sr. Seepie and Villegas testified in front of Vice-Chairman Udall and other U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs members. Photos submitted by SRPMIC Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.
“I am a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. I am in the fifth grade at the Salt River Elementary School. I like my school, and my favorite subject is reading. I also like sports, like the cross-country team and wrestling. When I’m home, I like jumping on the trampoline, and soon, because it is almost summer, I get to go swimming a lot.

“Last summer I went to the Diabetes Prevention Camp. My mom and my grandma have diabetes. A lot of people in Salt River have diabetes. I think a lot of people have diabetes because they don’t eat healthy and they don’t exercise. I wanted to be healthier, so I went to camp. I wanted to be able to help my mom and my grandma be healthier. I also wanted to show my brothers and sisters how they could eat healthier. I lost 16 pounds.

“Camp has helped me make better choices in what I eat, and they taught me that playing outside was fun and not boring. When I came home from camp, my family thought I would like to have a hamburger and fries, or a pizza, but I didn’t want that. I wanted a salad. They were very surprised.

“I learned that having high sugar and eating junk was not OK and that if I did what the program taught me, like eating good and exercising, I would lower my sugar and feel better. I did! I can’t wait to go back to camp again this year. I know I will learn more and I will have fun.

Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members Rachel Seepie and Alton Villegas and others testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. on March 29.
“I think more kids will learn from the Diabetes Camp and we can help other people in Salt River to be healthier so they won’t be sick. I want to invite you to come to Arizona in the summer. We go to camp where it is not so hot. I want you to see our camp. Thank you for helping me and helping my mom and grandma.”

Rachel Seepie’s testimony

“Good Afternoon, Chairman Hoeven, Vice-Chairman [Tom] Udall [D-New Mexico] and members of the Committee. My name is Rachel Seepie and I am a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona. It is an honor to appear before you to share my personal wellness journey and let you know how important the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI) has been for me and many members of our Community.

“I have submitted a written statement to the committee and would like to make sure that is made a part of the record. Thank you.

“In brief, my Community, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, has over 10,000 enrolled members where approximately 6,000 of our members live within the boundaries of the Community. Demographically, in our Community, nearly 40 percent of our members are under age 18. By gender, 53 percent of our members are female and 47 percent are male. And as you may be aware, our people, the Pima, have been the subject of national surveys, news pieces and other studies that have documented the high rates of diabetes that exist. For example, the five-year rolling average age of death in our Community for 2016 and the four preceding years is 48 years of age for males and 58 years of age for females. Many of these deaths are directly related to diabetes and its complications.

“For the Community, as it relates to diabetes prevention and intervention, we have been grateful to receive the SDPI grant. For many years, this grant has provided a program for the Community to give nutritional education and physical activities to prevent diabetes and help those with type 2 diabetes to lead a healthier lifestyle. I believe with the continuation of the grant, more members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community will learn what is needed to have a healthier lifestyle.

“In my own experience, the programs that have been funded through the SDPI grant have helped me strive to have a healthier life. I am a mom with three children. I learned through the years that physical activity is one of the keys to staying healthy with type 2 diabetes. Yes, I have type 2 diabetes, but I have been able to control it for the last 10 years by eating well and exercising. When I was first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I had to take medication to control my blood sugars. As time went on, I decided that I did not want to take medication anymore and I used what I learned through our Community Diabetes Prevention Program that with a good healthy diet and physical activity I can control my blood sugars.

“Some of my physical activity includes aerobics classes, hiking, running long distance and triathlons. In the past 10 years I have run six marathons, over 10 half-marathons and many triathlons. A personal achievement that I am most proud of is to compete and finish two IRONMAN Triathlon events. I will always remember when crossing the finish line, after swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a marathon, the announcer saying ‘YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.’ For me, these are accomplishments that cap a journey I did not think was possible as a diabetic. While I was the first woman in my Community to be an IRONMAN, with the support of the Community, I continue to encourage more people to get involved in athletics and to join our little triathlon team. And I also want to thank the IRONMAN company for their partnership with the Community and support of Community athletes.

(L-R) National Indian Health Board Chair Vinton Hawley, Fort Berthold (N.D.) Diabetes Program Director Jared Eagle, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Alton Villegas, U.S. Senator John Hoeven, actor Martin Sensmeier, SRPMIC member Rachel Seepie and Chris Buchanan, acting director of Indian Health Services.
“I am also involved in teaching group exercise classes for both our youth and seniors. We all know that staying fit and getting regular exercise is a key to good health, and it has been a commitment for me to be healthy for my children, my mom, sister and brother. As I become more involved with distance running and triathlons, I have felt healthier and my doctor sees the positive results in my blood sugar levels (A1c), which have gone down to near normal. My resting heart rate is low, which means my heart is strong, and my weight has gone down.

“I believe that it is through the SDPI grant that I was able to learn and have the information I needed to take care of myself and my family and to live a healthier lifestyle so my children can live their lives without type 2 diabetes. My vision is that my Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and our members will learn how to become healthier and that they will have long, full lives without type 2 diabetes.”

“Thank you for allowing me to share these few words, and I will be happy to answer any questions.”