WINDOW ROCK, AZ – As a leader for one of the nation’s largest Native American Tribes, Johnathan Nez, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, is faced with the daily challenge of making monumental decisions that affect more than 300,000 Navajo Tribal members.
Water rights, mineral rights, housing, jobs, education and more fall under his administration. Tough and challenging. One of his most interesting challenges came from a group of children listening to him talk about healthy eating habits. He spent a great deal of time visiting schools throughout the reservation talking about the need to eat healthy. After all, obesity and diabetes have been a major concern for not only for the Navajo, but American Indians have been faced with epidemic like statistics for these diseases.
“I was called out by a young man when I was 300 pounds,” the vice president noted. “Yet, I was telling kids to be healthy and take care of themselves. They responded to me by saying: ‘You tell us to eat right, but every year we see you getting bigger and bigger.”
“The young man was right. I needed to set the example. So, I lost 100 pounds and started running.”
And running. From a casual interest to marathons of up to 150 miles along with a change in the way he eats. He can now show up to school events and confidently say, “if you eat wrong, you gain weight and subject yourself to diabetes, heart issues and more. I tell everyone that I didn’t diet. This is not a diet. I have changed the way I eat. There is a major difference between dieting and eating right.”
His “leadership by example” doesn’t start and stop with a personal weight loss story to share with tribal members. His is a leadership that looks at the reservation lifestyle and shortens the focus from lifestyle to life itself and the opportunities that exist.
“We want to bring back our ancestor’s way of life,” the Vice President notes. “We want our members to use indigenous seeds for agriculture that was passed down from our past. We need our doctors to understand traditional tribal medicines which include plant-based medications and most of all, we want our doctors to understand nutrition.”
Vice President Jonathan Nez “walks the walk”. Under severe protest from national soda companies, Vice President was a force in getting a two percent “junk food” tax passed on the reservation along with elimination of taxes for fresh fruits, vegetables and water. Impulse “junk food items” at the front check-out counters have been moved back to the shelves and replaced with healthy choices up front for a healthier “impulse” buy.
Income from the junk food tax has been slated to go back to the community to fund development of horse trails, bike trails, walking trails and other park facilities.
“We want to draw interest back to our historic and picturesque land. We want to build activities back into the parks and create a healthy interest in what we have.”
Vice President Nez envisions agricultural opportunities for Navajo tribal members. With a reservation covering 17,544,500 acres or 27,413 square miles, he has driven a “Farmer Markets” program in the parking lots of seven local markets to showcase Navajo grown fruits and vegetables.
“I don’t see why we should be buying produce from outside the reservation when we can deliver fresh, organic products to our tribal members – grown here locally. My opinion is the products our tribal members produce will be fresher and a better value.”
As an avid runner, Vice President Nez can see the value of reintroducing the beauty and history of the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo Nation Parks, as well as National Park Service sites within the reservation (Dine’ Bikeyah), contain some stunning trails including Wild Horse Trail (Four Corners), Little Colorado River Trails, Wildcat Trail (Monument Valley), Rainbow Trail (Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park), and White House Trail (Canyon de Chelley).
“We are proud of our Nation, but we don’t want to forget the hardships and the sacrifices our ancestors made,” Vice President points out. “We can draw interest to our past and present culture through health and fitness initiatives.”
This July 25th, will mark the 150-year anniversary of the treaty between the United States government and the Navajo nation. One hundred fifty years of hardship and changes. But Vice President Nez wants 2018 to be marked as a year when the nation and its people realized the hope that is present from so many opportunities.
“Yes, after I leave office and have run my last marathon, I want my people to see that if nothing else, I left the legacy of hope. That’s important to me.”