When you think about health in Indian country, what comes to mind? People often reference the tragic statistics regarding illness, suicide and substance abuse. The prevalence of these critical issues is a dismal reality, and I am grateful for the people and organizations who are working hard every day to change things. But I also offer that one way we might start to create healthier communities is by talking more and thinking more about the positive elements of indigenous health and wellness.
It’s time to start focusing more on our strength. Because the more we focus on the negative, the more we remind ourselves that it’s normal or even expected to sacrifice our health for drugs or bad food or alcohol. In no way am I dismissing the perilous cycle of history or ignoring the government policies which deliberately drove our communities toward these illnesses—things happened that we and our ancestors had no control over. But now, let’s try to take a closer look at our inherent strength instead of focusing on the factors that destroy us.
I work as a personal trainer and journalist in New York City. I attend classes and training sessions all the time to learn about different workouts. I read the books, I watch the YouTube videos, I follow the Instagram profiles. I’m a part of the fitness culture. And I have to say, while Deepak Chopra and Jillian Michaels and all of the other wellness gurus do have a lot of valuable and inspirational things to teach us, they just don’t have what we have. Nobody has what we have.
1. We understand balance.
Native people maintain a vast diversity of beliefs—bear with me if anything I’m saying is not representative of your traditions. I happen to come from a plains nation, so I’m going to talk about the medicine wheel. The four directions concept is the cornerstone of our traditional spirituality, and as far as I can tell, a lot of different tribes also adhere to its teachings. The medicine wheel teaches us that life is all about balance: mental, physical, spiritual and emotional. We have learned that in order to live a good life, we have to continually focus on nurturing all four of these components. We also learn that if we get knocked out of balance, we have every opportunity to work back toward it—no judgment, no punishment. What a beautiful thing! Anytime we need, we can pray to the four directions and derive strength from their lifegiving sources. It’s a simple yet extraordinarily powerful guideline for healthy living—one that many other people may never come to understand or be raised to embrace.
2. We maintain the strength of generations.
In Native culture, we acknowledge our ancestors and we remember our future generations with each step and with every breath. Our extended family is of utmost importance to us. We are raised to respect our elders and our children, and in turn, our elders and our children respect us and keep us strong. Other people sometimes look at us and note that we are small in numbers—but what they don’t see is that we walk with an impenetrable phalanx of ancestors by our sides. And while we do experience historical trauma—the nightmarish effects of the horrors that our ancestors went through—we likewise carry their survivor strength with us. We couldn’t get rid of it if we tried. We are even stronger than we realize.
3. We are often less materialistic.
A lot of people are into health and fitness for the wrong reasons. Maybe even most people. I have to admit that there are times when I think of going to the gym as a quest for the perfect body—and then I remember, oh wait, I’m not that shallow. Honestly, I’ve been in New York City for four years now, and I still haven’t adjusted to the degree of materialism and greed that is widely accepted and even lauded by so many people here. I spent some time trying to catch up and get on their level with the look and the expensive stuff, but then I remembered (thank God) that none of that stuff actually matters, and it’s okay that I come from a place where I wasn’t expected to be glamorous.
A lot of us Native people come from communities where people are struggling to meet basic needs. With that in mind, it’s more natural for us to be into fitness and health for the right reasons. It’s not *just* because we want to look good for the next vacation (although that might be a part of it, and that’s fine). It’s a lot deeper than that. We work out so we can have a lot of energy to raise our kids. We eat right so that we can grow old and help raise our grandchildren. We avoid abusing substances so that we can spend our days working hard to pay off our student loans. We understand that health and wellness are less superficial and more about survival. We are in it for the right reasons, and our cultural and familial values remind us of that every day.
4. We maintain the warrior mentality.
Warrior is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, and honestly, I don’t have a problem with it. If you feel like a warrior, by all means, own it. I don’t know any Native people who have made it through life without having to defend themselves, either physically or mentally. We might view our incessant battles for respect and survival as a burden, but we might also view them as a gift. We build a thick skin, which allows us to take on challenges with relative ease. We have seen a lot of hardships and we’ve seen a lot of terrible things go down in our communities, but we have been through so much together as a people that we have become collectively fierce.
Like I said, we are even stronger than we realize.
Planting grey corn in Kearney, Nebraska.
Chelsey Luger is from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe & Standing Rock Lakota Nation in North Dakota. An alumna of Dartmouth College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she lives in New York City and remains an avid student of global indigenous politics and history. She hopes to play her role as a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for Native health and wellness. Follow her on instagram at chelswhoelse or twitter @CPLuger. (Photo: Eller Bonifacio.)