PORTLAND, Ore. - When the Native Wellness Institute formed in 2000, most of the 13-member board of directors and administrators had already spent a great deal of their careers in the wellness sector.
NWI was born out of women's wellness conferences started by several current board members during the 1980s. Since their collaboration, they have sponsored a variety of wellness gatherings and training seminars to tribal communities.
To add a new challenge, the board planned four large conferences this year, instead of the usual one.
Jillene Joseph, Gros Ventre and NWI executive director, said they separated the four conferences by geographical location to honor the four directions and to make it convenient and economical for Natives to travel.
''We came up with the idea to offer the four conferences for free to create awareness for people who haven't been to one before,'' she said.
The goal was to bring in 1,000 participants at each of the four events, called the ''Four Thousand from the Four Directions.'' The first two gatherings drew a combined attendance of more than 800 people. The next gathering, which honors the North, will take place at Mystic Lake Resort and Casino in Prior Lake, Minn., Sept. 11 - 13.
''We've gone after support from tribes and individuals so we can offer these events for free,'' Joseph said.
Keynote speakers include board member Cecelia Fire Thunder, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons and Howard Rainer.
The next gathering kicks off with a healing village, which promotes bonding through craft-making activities such as the constructing of rattles, medicine pouches and dream catchers.
''While they're doing it, they're visiting and sharing,'' Joseph said. ''It's healing for them.''
Other events on the schedule include evening wellness activities, health expo, banquet and dance, and a performance by the indigenous Dancing Earth troupe. And with the assistance of trainer Robert Johnston, youth in attendance will make up a skit to demonstrate their Native pride to conference-goers.
Board member Theda New Breast, Blackfeet, said many of the youths are seemingly withdrawn when they first arrive at the conference, but with some encouragement they blossom on stage. ''They are able to find their voice, and it's amazing what they come up with,'' she said.
The last 4 X 4 gathering, which honors the West, will take place at Coeur d'Alene Tribal Resort in Worley, Idaho, Nov. 6 - 8.
In addition to trying to promote wellness via conferences, the NWI's highly qualified board members share their areas of expertise with tribes willing to make healthy changes from the inside out.
Joseph said that her staff teaches tribes how to promote positive behavior in the workplace. She dubbed it ''Living by the Warrior Spirit: positive, proactive and productive.''
In order for any training to foster healing, Joseph believes workshop participants' need to look at the ''why'' of negative behavior and how it ties into historical trauma.
Trainers utilize Gathering of Native Americans curriculum, created in part by Fire Thunder, to aid in the healing process.
''The foundation of our work is to really create awareness and provide opportunity for personal growth,'' Joseph said.
To help boost healthy relationships in Indian country, the NWI was recently awarded a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans to develop a healthy relationship curriculum based in Native culture.
The curriculum, ''Leading the Next Generations,'' is based on board members Pam and Gordon James' book, ''Coming Together in a Good Way.'' The curriculum will be available to tribal communities and organizations in 2008.
NWI also focuses on passing the Warrior Spirit torch on to the younger generations by offering three leadership events each year. Each summer, the Culture and Leadership Camp teaches youth respect, teamwork and leadership by promoting the teachings of Native ancestors, cultures, and traditional crafts and games.
The Summer Native Youth Leadership Academy prepares youth for future academic, community and cultural involvement. This conference takes place at a university.
During the Winter Native Youth Leadership Academy, young people learn leadership skills by participating in clans. They engage in media skill development and planning activities so they learn how to give back to their community. Joseph said they are still firming up the details, but this year's winter academy is slated for the San Diego, Calif., area.
To further educate young and old alike, NWI recently partnered with the National Congress of American Indians and Partnership for a Drug-Free America on a methamphetamine awareness campaign throughout Indian country.
New Breast, who comes from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, said she is proud to see the influx of ''Don't Meth with my Rez'' bumper stickers on local cars.
NWI even has a theme song that Joseph welcomes everyone to download and use in a good way. Arlie Neskahi composed the song, ''Walking Together,'' in 2005.
''We feel that even though we're a National organization our efforts are very grass-roots,'' Joseph said.
NWI has numerous hands-on programs to help tribal communities. For more information, visit www.nativewellness.com or call (503) 666-7699.