In January, Natalia Sells received unexpected diagnosis: prediabetes.
She looked healthy. She was only 21 years old. She was a thriving business management student at Fort Lewis College. In some ways, the diagnosis didn’t make sense. In other ways, it did, because Sells is a member of Navajo Nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Native Americans have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other U.S. racial/ethnic group.
The diagnosis propelled Sells into action. She revised her diet and started running again.
A few months later, she was crowned Miss Hozhoni after a three-day pageant in which contestants compete in public speaking, presenting traditional Native American foods and perform modern talents. With the title, Sells became an ambassador and a role model of the FLC Native American community. The crowning and her diagnosis gave her power to make change for herself – and to educate others.
In May, after changing her diet, Sells, who is from Shiprock, New Mexico, and Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, finished her first marathon.
She didn’t stop there. Her journey to improve her own health and the health of tribal communities took her to New York City to study public health. Sells applied for the Summer Public Health Scholars Program through Columbia University and was one of 41 students accepted.
The program focused on overall public health, epidemiology and health disparities, especially in minority cultures.
She spent the summer learning about researching some of the health challenges on reservations, including those faced by her own people. “Overall my main drive is how I can help my community ” she said.
About one-third of all Americans had prediabetes in 2015, and only 11 percent of those with the condition are aware of it, according to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s also a common condition in Indian Country, but reversible if people will change their habits, she said.
“It’s something we should be investing more attention towards,” Sells said.
At the end of her internship, she presented her research about the barriers to healthful eating that Native Americans face, such as living in food deserts and relying on commodity food distributions.
For example, people living in Teec Nos Pos are 30 miles from the nearest grocery store, she said.
She also presented possible solutions, such as teaching more healthful ways to prepare commodity foods and incorporating traditional foods back into diets.
Sells examined fry bread and its role in her culture.
“It is a physical representation of simply surviving,” she said.
The dish was developed when Native Americans were forcibly taken to Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner and given coffee, flour, lard and salt to subsist.
“You can’t just tell a culture, ‘get rid of it because it’s bad for you.’ Instead, we should encourage ways of modifying it, like more palm-size servings, adding more whole wheat into the flour,” she said.
As part of the program at Columbia, Sells also interned with the American Indian Community House in New York City, an organization that formerly provided programs focused on behavioral health, diabetes, food and nutrition, and wellness.
One week before she arrived, Indian Health Services cut funding to the organization. As a result, the Community House shifted to providing more programs related to cultural identity for Native Americans. The city has the largest number of Native Americans and Alaska Natives of any area in the country, according to a report by the state of New York.
While working as an intern, she was invited to walk with the Community House in the New York City Pride March because she is Miss Hozhoni.
“In my culture, I have never had to see the ugliness or the hatred that comes with being homophobic,” Sells said.
She has extended her visibility as an ambassador for Native Americans. She often is asked to speak at public events, such as the Northern Navajo Nation Fair this fall.
She sees partaking in pageants as a way to encourage cultural revitalization and pride.
“It was only back in the ’60s and the ’80s and so on when you had the government and American society telling you ‘You’re bad. Your culture is bad,’” she said.
There’s a marked difference between mainstream pageantry and Native American pageantry that Sells attributes to cultural differences.
“Women are just so highly regarded in Native culture because there is so much power and strength that is associated with them ... Because of that, pageants are very serious. Because you have to be strong. You have to understand what your goals are, and you have to understand your culture and represent that in way that continues the tradition and it continues inspiring the youth,” she said.
After graduating from FLC, Sells plans to work for two years before returning to school to earn a master degree in public administration. She may also apply for a Public Health Associate Program through the CDC.
Long term, she wants to work for tribal communities to improve their sovereignty and public heath.
“In order to be effective on the Navajo Nation or any reservation, you have to have a very rounded education,” she said.