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Belcourt: Preventive medicine for good health

In April, representatives and concerned members from across Indian country in Montana and Wyoming traveled to Billings, Mont., for our 8th annual Tribal Health Conference. An unmitigated success, more than 200 people participated in the three-day forum and lecture at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

We face unique health challenges in Indian country, from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer to mental health, depression and the scourges of alcoholism and methamphetamine abuse. Working in conjunction with the Billings Area IHS, the Montana and Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council put forth an aggressive agenda to not only touch on these aforementioned critical health issues, but to encourage an even greater one: preventive medicine.

To emphasize this theme, we began every day of the conference with a 7:30 a.m., 1.5-mile walk followed by a light breakfast, setting the stage for a productive day. In doing this we joined American Indians and Alaska Natives across the nation in the ''Just Move It'' campaign to promote and improve physical activity among Natives. The goal is to get 1 million of us walking daily to improve our health, and it highlights the need for all of us to take greater personal responsibility in our health.

Tribes and organizations from across the nation have literally ''stepped up'' to the challenge with the ''Just Move It'' campaign to improve physical activity among Natives. Statistics show that even a small additional amount of exercise, even just walking a few days per week, makes a great difference in one's long-term health. In this campaign, local organizers plan an event, walk a pre-established route and chart their progress with the national organization at www.justmoveit.org.

Our conference moderator was Billy Rogers, MPH. Rogers is a nationally recognized trainer and speaker who brought his ''Mobilizing Communities for Better Health'' message to our conference as he has to hundreds of communities across the nation. We were also joined by educators, professionals and representatives of state and federal agencies to discuss these important issues. We must also thank Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester for taking time from their schedules to join us and address some of the health issues faced on the reservations.

Sadly, the cycle of disease starts early in Indian country. Childhood obesity, due to inactivity and poor eating habits, sets a foundation for ill health. These risks include Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease. All of this is preventable with education, proper diet and activity. Beyond the ''Just Move It'' campaign, Montana and Wyoming tribal leaders have staff dedicated to education and outreach on the reservations on ways to combat the impacts of diabetes through improved exercise and nutrition.

Our lands have been infested with the poison of methamphetamines, and the Montana and Wyoming tribes have worked in conjunction with the Montana Meth Project (www.montanameth.org) to activate and engage tribal members. Research shows that methamphetamine addiction takes hold after only one ''hit,'' ensnaring even those who only intended to try it once. To emphasize that danger, we repeatedly use the mantra ''not even once,'' as concerned families and recovering addicts speak in our towns and reservations, educating our brothers and sisters that meth truly does equal death.

We have also enacted a suicide prevention program with education and counseling. Suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem, and has a tragic impact on friends and family of those who choose to take their own life. We have a toll-free number, (800) 273-TALK, for Montana and Wyoming tribal members, and have instituted school and community outreach so that those who feel they have lost all hope can get the help they deserve.

There are many challenges ahead, and we are working to face them head-on. Disease, both mental and physical, must be addressed on reservation lands, and the MWTLC stands ready and able to work with our state and federal governments to tackle these critical issues and call on them to continue to stand with us to find long-term solutions to health care on our reservations.

Still, the best way to reduce the burden on our overtaxed health care infrastructure is to not need it in the first place, and we in Indian country are making the effort to do our part to ensure that we take the path of healthy living, and that's better for everyone.

Gordon Belcourt is executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, an organization representing the 10 tribes of Montana and Wyoming. The MWTLC is based in Billings, Mont.