Well For Culture Is Giving Indigenous Wellness Practices the Recognition They Deserve
While the mainstream wellness movement is still largely ignoring the relevance of Indigenous practices, Chelsey Luger and Thosh Collins are connecting the dots between long-standing practices and healthy living.
Among the countless health-related accounts on Instagram, Well For Culture offers a facet of wellness you don't often see. The page showcases nutrition, fitness, and mental and emotional health topics related to Indigenous wellness.
Journalist Chelsey Luger and photographer Thosh Collins, who both grew up in Native communities in the U.S., started Well For Culture in 2013 as a way to inspire people to make connections between Indigenous culture and wellness. What they initially envisioned as a digital movement quickly spilled offline, as Luger and Collins started receiving requests for consulting and leading events. Now married and expecting their second child, the couple has traveled around the country to give presentations in Indigenous communities.
Well For Culture's online content and in-person presentations touch on the Seven Circles of Wellness, a model for holistic health centered on traditional wellness-related Indigenous practices which Luger and Collins developed. The circles — real food, sleep, movement, ceremony, sacred space, connection to land, and clanship and community — pull together the interconnected elements that played a role in the health of Indigenous people's ancestors, says Collins. "We thought, let's create something that we can tell people 'take this template and apply your people's teachings to this area,'" he says. "And we can incorporate various things we've learned from outside our culture, such as resistance training or new science about sleep, that fit well with ancestral knowledge." (Related: Foods That Can Help You Sleep for Some Much-Needed ZZZs)
Growing up in Arizona, Collins says it wasn't uncommon for him to hear about people in his community dying at a young age from cirrhosis or diabetes. At the same time, he says, he was exposed to a lot of beautiful teachings and has fond memories of the cultural gatherings in his tight-knit community. "I think of my upbringing and understanding the importance of promoting healing and wellness through Indigenous teachings has been so important," he says. "I no longer wanted to have to be able to raise children in a place that is disproportionately affected by alcoholism and unhealthy eating habits or lack of access and lack of education to real, healthy food. That's why I got involved to create something like [Well For Culture]."
Before he got involved, Collins went through a period in his early twenties when he "went off track" in terms of taking care of himself, ending up in an unhealthy relationship and using substances and alcohol, he says. But in his mid-twenties, he became more involved in the Native wellness community and was inspired to start applying what he was learning. "In the last eight or nine years, I started to put a lot of effort into it, so my relationship to wellness has definitely transformed and evolved," he said. "I always say there's no finish line to our healing journey. It's a journey and it's multilayered and it's complex. It's nonlinear."
As for Luger, growing up in North Dakota, she also saw examples of both extremes on the health spectrum of Native people. "When I went to our ceremonies and our cultural gatherings a few times out of the year, these would be settings where there are no drugs, no alcohol, where everybody from infancy to elders are present and welcome and are cooperatively working together on something that is for the greater good of our community," she says. "We didn't use the word 'wellness,' but it was truly the picture of wellness." On the other hand, she also saw racism against Native people, and a lot of poverty and addiction, she says. (Related: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)
Like Collins, Luger recalls a personal shift. "As a graduate school student, I'd done my fair share of partying and city lifestyle far away from my community," she says. She started thinking about the Medicine Wheel, a model used in some Indigenous tribes that connects mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional health. "I was feeling so out of balance and so unhealthy and I realized I could use these teachings from the medicine wheel, these teachings from my culture, to be healthy and carry these no matter where I am,'" she recalls.
Well For Culture offers a perspective that's largely ignored in the mainstream wellness conversation, says Luger. And some of the "latest wellness trends" (e.g. smudging) have even been co-opted from Indigenous culture.
To ignore the influence of Indigenous culture on today's wellness movement is a disservice to everyone in this country, says Luger. "I very much think that everybody who is a wellness practitioner today in America has been influenced by Indigenous culture whether they realize it or not," she says. "And then of course in wellness today, colonialism and the violent removal of our foodways, the ecological destruction that has taken place, all of these things that impacted Indigenous communities first and foremost have subsequently impacted all non-Native people who live here. Our health is suffering collectively as a country." (Related: Easy Ways to Make Healthy Eating More Accessible for Yourself and Others)
While addressing Indigenous communities, Well For Culture is "simply connecting dots that already exist," says Luger. "There's a long history of non-Native people coming into Indigenous communities and just seeing our problems," she says. "They don't have a full breadth of understanding of our history of colonialism and of exploitation and so they just see us as this problematic population that needs to be fixed. But when we travel, because we come from within, we have respect for our own people and for our own culture. While others might see us for our struggle, from a deficit perspective, we see the strength and power in our communities and in our cultures."