As I sit here listening to my 6-year-old daughter read, I wonder what the future holds for her and the next generation of Navajo children. Childhood obesity and diabetes continue to plague the Navajo Nation and American Indian communities across the United States.
These negative trends among Navajo youths raise important questions for tribal communities. How will our Navajo Nation government and we, as Navajo people, work together to combat these negative trends?
Let’s not kid ourselves. Defeating diabetes and obesity will not be easy. It will take commitment, creativity and reliance on our traditional values to solve these problems.
More importantly, these issues require all of us to take a stand as we work to reclaim control of our health, wellness, diets and community well-being.
But we need a partner in the Navajo Nation government.
The passing of the Healthy Diné Nation Act by the Navajo Nation Council was a big step forward. The battle to prevent our kids from developing type 2 diabetes cannot be won without the support of our tribal leaders.
This legislation has a very simple, two-part approach:
First, increase access to and affordability of fresh and healthy foods sold on the reservation by removing the 5 percent Navajo sales tax on fresh fruits, vegetables and water sold on the reservation.
Second, implement a small 2 percent additional sales tax on “junk food” sold on the reservation, with revenues generated from the tax going back into Navajo communities for health and wellness programs.
The two parts work together for the good of the people.
I am inspired by the grassroots movement among the Navajo people that led to this important legislation and the Navajo Council members who stood up to be a part of this movement.
I stand with them today.
But a week after the Healthy Diné Nation Act passed, I was disappointed and discouraged to learn that this important legislation was vetoed.
The veto sends a dangerous message that the futures of our children are for sale to outside corporate interests that have no concern for the health of the Navajo people.
If we fail to maintain our sovereign identity, our children will be left to pay the consequences. This issue isn’t only about a tax but also about how the citizens of the Navajo Nation want to shape the future for their children.
I realize that new Navajo tax laws will not be the sole solution to an epidemic that results in the rate of diabetes being 2.3 times higher within the Navajo Nation than elsewhere in the U.S. or that 50 percent of American Indian children are projected to develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime based on current childhood obesity rates.
But the Healthy Diné Nation Act represents an idea that brings together the resources and leadership of Navajo government, and combines them with the best interests of the Navajo people. The reality facing our communities is that if government and family leaders continue to ignore the childhood obesity and diabetes issue, it will ensure that some of our children will not outlive their parents.
Just as my grandfather, Notah Begay Sr., and the Navajo Code Talkers played an instrumental role in winning the Pacific Theater during World War II, the Healthy Diné Nation Act sets us on a path forward for the Navajo people to win in the fight against diabetes and obesity, and for healthier communities.
It also demonstrates that the Navajo people will not sit idly by and allow their children to slide into lives of chronic disease.
It is time for our citizens – and our Navajo leaders – to exercise a new path of self-determination that encourages the government and its people to work together in order to find solutions to these major health problems.
It is time for the Navajo Nation Council to overturn the veto.
Notah Begay III (Navajo, San Felipe, Isleta) founded the Notah Begay III Foundation, whose mission is to battle obesity and type 2 diabetes in Native American children.