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Running at Dawn: A Diné Cultural and Health Teaching

Ariel Shirley is a graduating senior at the University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health who completed an internship focused on community education at the UA Sarver Heart Center. Photo credit Ariel Shirley.Yá’át’ééh (hello in Diné), my name is Ariel Shirley. I am a senior studying public health at the University of Arizona. I grew up near the Diné (Navajo) Nation in Gallup, N.M. Since I was a little girl, my Diné culture was always the forefront of my principles. As a public health student, I have the unique perspective of incorporating Diné philosophies with holistic wellness to address chronic health issues. One example is using my culture to connect with running.

When running, there is a sense of connection and euphoria. Maybe it is the endorphins, but I feel a greater connection to my culture and roots. Running is a teaching integrated into the Diné life cycle. I was taught to run east at dawn to greet our deities. Although it may seem ordinary to run in the morning, running is a way to honor our teachings. East is a significant direction in the Diné culture. It is the beginning of the lifecycle. Being up and active shows a sense of discipline and understanding of Diné culture. Implementing mindfulness while running shows the deities you are welcoming blessings in one’s life. Running is a teacher in itself. The lessons are to combat laziness, instill discipline and endure struggle to come out stronger. Running is a healing process that will teach you many lessons if you let it.

Hogan, a traditional dwelling of the Navajo people. Photo credit Ariel Shirley. Today, the Diné running culture may not be as widely implemented, but the importance in the Diné culture is still relevant. Running is central in both the male and female puberty ceremonies. Each day of the ceremony, the individual must run to the east and farther than before. Again, the teaching is to challenge yourself and resembles the growth and development in life. During my ceremony, I remember waking up before the sun while my grandparents loudly encouraged me to run as far as I could. The same was done for my sisters.

Today, many people run for physical health, but for the Diné people it means connecting back to our culture. Running not only grounds us to our culture, but is a tool used to maintain physical health. Like many Native American tribes, loss of culture is a threat to the Diné way of life. With high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases and cancer, returning to foundational teachings is a way to address these health issues.

Mariano Lake, New Mexico. Photo credit Ariel Shirley. As an individual with a family history of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, I know maintaining my health is essential. I know the risk factors of diabetes and heart disease are physical inactivity, poor diet and family history. Since I cannot change my family history, I know it is up to me to assess my modifiable risk factors and implement change into my lifestyle. This means eating healthier and reconnecting back to the teachings of my culture.

Using my culture to sustain a healthy lifestyle is important to address the health issues on the Navajo Nation. As my time here at the University of Arizona wraps up, I am excited to see where I can utilize my skills in combination with my culture to address chronic health issues on the Navajo Nation. Change will not be easy, but the goal of a healthier generation is worth it.

Ahé'hee’ (Thank you)

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