Trail of Tears hike: Bug bites, meditation, maybe life change
In each of the past two years, University of Washington social work professor Karina Walters has spent a little over a week trudging through swampland and battling heat and insects along nearly 70 miles of the Trail of Tears.
She doesn’t make the journey alone: Other members of Choctaw Nation join her to learn about their ancestors and forge a healthier path for themselves. Walters has led two walks in collaboration with colleagues and will lead a third this year.
Currently 60 to 70 percent of Choctaws are overweight or obese. A third are projected to have type II diabetes by 2050. Community efforts are making a difference but on their own are not slowing disease progression quickly enough.
“Our ancestors didn’t survive the Trail of Tears for our generation to be dying this way; instead, they did it with a vision of our health in mind – for our survival. I wanted to reconnect with that vision for our future,” Walters said.
After the tribe’s then-director of health services sought her help addressing health disparities, Walters consulted with colleagues at the UW and Choctaw Nation. Together they developed ideas for the walk, hoping that an activity imbued with culture and tradition would produce more intrinsic motivation.
“Interventions often do a great job telling people what to do and what not to do, but what they really need to do is to remind people why we exist as Choctaw. Why are we here as a people? Why do we live?” Walters said. “That’s the glue that holds together any interventions we do in the community.”
The project is called “Yappallí,” which in Choctaw means “to walk slowly and softly.” Ideally the journey serves as an oath and an awakening rather than a memorial.
Participants follow the tribe’s section of the Trail of Tears through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. They travel mostly dirt paths through hills, forests and swamps but occasionally follow a highway or land in a town. The team has access to a support van that follows on the nearest paved road.
While tracing their ancestors’ path, participants camp outdoors, chronicle daily reflections, meet with locals and visit museums to learn more about Choctaw history.
Through such research, Walters discovered two routes her direct ancestors walked in the early 1830s. That knowledge and the experience she gained on the trail transformed her, she said. Other participants shared that they also had been profoundly changed by the walk.
Participant Sandy Stroud, who helped develop Yappallí and who directs a Choctaw Nation program for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, said the walk helped her tune in to her personality and accept her imperfections.
“It’s almost like a boot camp: You get to the part where you don’t think you can handle it anymore, and you do, then you come out of it different,” Stroud said.
The project has had more tangible outcomes, too. One woman was inspired by her experience on the trail and lost 65 pounds; another lost 35.
Stroud described the experience as “opening yourself up to knowledge.”
“I’ve participated in community events before but the process of living within history and drawing from that was completely new to me. That’s what makes Yappallí unique.”
Walters intends to expand Yappallí with a grant she received this month. Over five years, she and colleagues will train 30 women from each of 12 tribal districts to become community health leaders. The training will build skills for organizing events, encouraging behavioral change and utilizing digital storytelling to share their work.
After three months of training, women will take 10 days to walk the Trail of Tears to affirm their vows to improve the tribe’s health. Each woman also will receive her traditional name at a ceremony.
The health-leadership training, like the walk, will follow the approach Walters believes is most effective: Individuals transforming their own lives as examples for friends and families.
“If we’re going to ask our community to change,” Walters said, “we have to change first."