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Native American Fitness: Mind-Body-Spirit

Native American health has declined for many reasons over the years, but the Jim Thorpe All Indian Games provide a glimpse of true Native fitness.
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It’s a good time to think about Native American health and fitness as the Jim Thorpe All Indian Games get underway June 22 in Shawnee, Oklahoma. We are often reminded of the impact of the Western Colonial Model on Native nations, such as the implementation of boarding schools in 1879, restrictions on the practice of tribal religion under the Religious Crimes Code in 1883, or the historical application of a “pass” system meant to keep Native Americans restricted to reservations unless they have been given a temporary pass to exit its confines. While these efforts prohibited freedom of movement and expression by tribes, the inability of tribal members to leave the reservation often prevented them from hunting, fishing, or gathering traditional food, practices the government felt were unnecessary given that food was provided by federal agents. Such food, it’s been well documented, was of poor quality, rationed or denied if a BIA agent was displeased, often in short supply, and known to make tribal members sick. Yet, even with past restrictions on Indian movement and poor-quality food, the current high incidence of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems are more closely related to contemporary fast food, junk food, and lack of exercise.

Take for instance, famed painter of tribes George Catlin, who wrote about Indian life as he observed it over decades. Catlin, who wrote Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life in 1891, noted that while the dominant society portrayed itself above the tribes, in truth the latter were healthier and lived longer than non-Indians in general. Indians, Catlin wrote, express “symmetry of form [and] gracefulness of movement” in greater percentages than “civilized communities” with their “dependent misery which comparative poverty produces.”


Native Americans were said to possess an exemplary system of exercise, even better than those from “Sweden, the United States, or the Sargent or Turner” exercise systems, according to Maud Smith Williams, author of the 1930 book Growing Straight. Native American forms of exercise were superior because they had not lost the mind-body-spiritual connection so prevalent in single-minded systems, she pointed out. Granted, Williams’1930 description of Native American exercises often begins with “waltz” music and her language is steeped in early stereotypical phrases, such as “Indian Brave” for male and “Indian Maiden” for female, her discourse on Indian posture, relaxation, and even elimination reveal the exceptional value of Indian practices and the toll of contemporary society on not just Indians, but the American physical frame in general.

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Williams captured the ill- effect on the spine, shoulder girdle, hips and internal organs of sitting in western-style chairs, such as those seen in classrooms where young students learn to sit incorrectly and then do so for the rest of their lives at kitchen chairs and living room furniture. Dr. Ed Thomas further pursued the ills of contemporary society on the physical form in Children of Clay. Not surprisingly, Native American exercise was functional and similar physical motions were documented at both work and play. Dance, of critical importance to Native Nations as part of the ceremonial cycle and sacred history, was also described by Williams as revitalizing the heart and mind which “cadences the soul.”

Roughly eighty years later, the health crisis amongst Native Nations has been met by the encouragement of pow wow dancing from such leaders as World Champion Hoop Dancer Melvin Star, the Coeur D’Alene tribes “Powwow Sweat,” or RezMove’s Native Dance and Cardio workout. The spirited effort required to pow wow dance encourages movement without losing its ceremonial importance. Equally important to exercise is the reemergence of traditional foods and fewer fatty and sugar filled foods to better fuel a healthy mind and body.

While thousands of Native American athletes test their limits this week, commit to your own fitness regimen. As Shedaezha Hodge says, “you ain’t dead yet, so let’s pow wow sweat.” And that doesn’t mean just watching the dancers from the couch.

Dr. Eric Hannel is an independent researcher and Native American Law Scholar. He has spoken on numerous Native American issues and published Reinterpreting a Native American Identity: Examining the Lumbee through the Peoplehood Model in 2015.