Awakening The Spirit: A Diabetes Documentary

Awakening The Spirit: A Diabetes Documentary

“The effects of diabetes on our Native communities is most often presented in terms of the statistics and not in the direct impacts on individuals and their loved ones,” said San Manuel Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena. “By working with the Awaking the Spirit program on projects like this short documentary, we are showing the Native people behind the numbers and their stories of strength and resilience as well as ways to prevent diabetes.”

Intertribal Games Gathering for Native Youth at Salt River

Last weekend, the Phoenix Indian Center in collaboration with the Native Wellness Institute hosted a fun day of intertribal games for youth at the Salt River Pima Maricopa Recreation Fields.

The day began with a warm-up of light exercises and dynamic stretching led by Thosh Collins (Akimel O'Odham) and an introduction by coordinator Robert Johnston (Muskogee Creek/Choctaw).

The kids then had the opportunity to try out the Creator's Game (LaCrosse) with a seasoned Navajo instructor who once played college LaCrosse for Princeton. Even though only one of the participants had ever played the game before, everybody enjoyed it and picked up on the game very quickly. 

Set up next to the LaCrosse field with targets and a handful of small bows, the kids also had an opportunity to learn archery and basic bow skills from an avid local bow hunter, Amson Collins (Akimel O'Odham) with assistance from Thosh. They loved testing out the bow and learning some of its history and cultural significance. It was very exciting to see their eyes light up with every hit of the target. Shooting the bow and arrow requires hand-eye coordination skills, attention to detail, lessons in safety, patience, and practice. Learning this skill has the ability to initiate a sense of empowerment and pride in the child who is participating. The kids (some as young as 4 years old!) did an excellent job and showed their ability to connect with this longstanding athletic tradition of the people. 

Overall, it was a successful day of learning and sharing new athletic skills, and the kids and instructors alike had a great time collaborating on the event. The intertribal games for native youth will persist once a month, for the next 3 months. For more information, contact them at 602-246-6768 or email

Organic 101

Organic 101

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the topic of “organic” food. Understanding what “organic” (and other terms associated with natural foods) really means will help you to better choose the safest and healthiest foods for you and your family. It is a complicated topic which would require research into many tangential details to fully understand, but we’ll break down the most important points to alleviate some of this confusion.


Simplify Your Approach to Fitness

Crow pose, by Jessica Barudin, yoga therapist. 

Crow pose, by Jessica Barudin, yoga therapist. 

Fitness today can seem complicated, to say the least. For many, the idea of working out has moved far beyond a recreational gym session and turned into its own science, its own language, its own technology... its own world. Fitness has never been more sophisticated or engaging.

In some ways, this is a great thing. We should recognize the science behind improving our physical health and take it very seriously. But in other ways, this turn-up in technicality can turn people away from fitness by making it seem too intimidating or scary. In some cases, our ability to measure things like body mass index; our engagement in the social media fitness world; the availability of fitness technology in apps and wristbands; and the incessant marketing of supplements and weight loss schemes can lead to an over-emphasis on looks or numbers while causing us to lose sight of functionality, wellbeing and fun.

I elicited the expert advice of Jessica Barudin (Kwakwaka’wakw), a yoga therapist and founder of Indigenous wellness site; and Dion Begaye (Dine), a strength and conditioning coach, in order to break down both the good and the bad elements of this technical side of fitness, and talk about how we can approach exercise with a healthy balance in both mind and intention. Here’s what it comes down to:

Yoga therapist Jessica Barudin practices yoga on a log, recognizing the importance of exercising in nature. 

Yoga therapist Jessica Barudin practices yoga on a log, recognizing the importance of exercising in nature. 

Be Wary of Appearance-Based Goals

There’s no question that a lot of people’s primary motivation behind fitness training has to do with looks.

“I hear it all the time,” said Dion, “people come in requesting  slimmer arms or a thigh gap.”

The idea seems problematic. Shouldn’t we be focusing on how healthy we are, not how we look in the mirror? Ideally, that would be the case, but we have to be honest. We’re human, living in a very superficial world, and we want to feel good about ourselves. There’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way. Let’s try not to blame or judge one another for succumbing to those pressures.

“We all want that,” Dion admitted, “It’s okay to want to have a great body, but at the same time, what good is low body fat if your body can’t functionally move well?”

Jessica also notes the prevalence of appearance-based goals, and while she recognizes the problematic nature, both trainers agree that it’s not always a bad thing.

“People have their goals, and a lot of their own insecurities,” Jessica explained,  “If somebody’s desire is to look physically better and that’s something they can commit to, that’s okay.”

The bottom line is this: if looks are what’s motivating you to get to the gym, and if that’s the only thing that can get you to commit to working out, it’s better than nothing. However, it’s important not to get too caught up in all of that. We are all born with unique body types and physiques. Some of us are practically born with a six pack, even if we eat burgers all day. Others will have a tiny back side no matter how many heavy weights we lift. If you are thinking too much about looks, you might be putting too much undue pressure on yourself and losing sight of the really important part of fitness, which has to do with health.

A fit body means that your organs, muscles, and joints are functioning well on the inside, and that’s always more important than how you look on the outside. A fit body means that you can run around, take care of your kids, make it up the stairs without collapsing. A fit body means that you can work, live, play, and do things for yourself and for your family. That’s always more important than looks - try to make that your priority, and you will become more fulfilled on your fitness journey.

Strength and conditioning coach Dion Begay using one of his favorite tools - the kettlebell. 

Strength and conditioning coach Dion Begay using one of his favorite tools - the kettlebell. 

Take the Numbers Out of Fitness

How many pounds can you bench? How much do you weigh? How many inches around are your thighs? What’s your body fat percentage? How many calories did you burn according to your Fitbit tracker?  How many push-ups can you do?

Numbers, numbers, numbers. We get way too caught up in this and it’s exhausting just to think about.

While it’s important to measure some numbers from time to time, but be careful.

Good measurements to take for your health include monitoring your weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels at the doctor’s office. This type of thing can be done once a year (maybe more often if you are diabetic or have other illnesses), and should be taken into consideration while consulting with a professional to create a fitness and nutrition plan to improve your health.

However, do not get caught up in the day-to-day obsession with losing pounds or inches. Don’t count calories. Don’t worry about the difference between benching five or ten more pounds. Beware of these ego-driven goals, and recognize that those numbers don’t actually matter when it comes to how you feel and perform.

“If you can train your body to be more functional and serve its purpose,” Dion said, “you’ll live a better, longer, healthier and happier life.”

Here’s a suggestion: during your next workout, try not to focus on any numbers at all. Don’t time yourself, don’t pay attention to pounds, don’t watch the clock, and don’t weigh yourself. Just do some challenging exercises until you’re really sweaty and tired, then call it a day. You’ll feel just as good about your workout - maybe better.

There is some value in keeping track of things sometimes, especially if you’re an athlete training toward a certain purpose, but you should also prove to yourself that you don’t need any of those tools to give yourself a good workout. Think about what our ancestors did, how they stayed in shape. They just worked hard and made sure they were healthy enough to do their jobs and take care of others. That’s what we should focus on today, too.

Practicing functional fitness, using a rock as weight. 

Practicing functional fitness, using a rock as weight. 

Functional Fitness and Meaningful Movement

“Functional fitness” has become a buzzword in the mainstream strength and conditioning world, but we urge you to keep in mind that the idea of functionality in the indigenous world is a little different.

“Functional fitness is action-oriented,” explained Jessica, “It’s all about getting through our day-to-day lives. We can be more connected to things that are physically demanding, like helping out a neighbor, or being really active with your kids.”

She continues, “Think about movement that’s meaningful. Powwow dancing is a good example. You have to be so agile and light on your feet, you have to be so strong and have a lot of endurance. You can find meaningful movement in yoga, running, or many other activities too.”

So that’s what it all comes down to. Aside from all the science, the technology, and the elevated knowledge that comes with the fitness world today, we have to remember the root of it all. Finding movement that’s meaningful to you can lead to a healthier mind. Being a strong individual leads to being a strong and contributing member of your community. Functional fitness is a means of taking care of your family.

Dion sums it up like this:

“Train your entire body to function well. Train to eliminate muscular imbalances. Train to increase range of motion and mobility. Train to increase stability. Train to build muscle. Do anything that will increase your body’s natural ability to move.”

Don't call it "Paleo"

To be Well For Culture means to eat ancestral foods — foods that our ancestors have been eating for hundreds of generations and that continue to remain central to our indigenous cultures. Because an ancestral diet is often high in protein and healthy animal fats, low in carbohydrates, and markedly different from the common American palate of today, we get this question a lot:

"So ... ancestral diet is a lot like Paleo, right?"

This is a fair assumption, but the answer is:

"Not really!" 

We take issue with a lot of the concepts and ideas behind the paleo diet, and we find it important to emphasize that ancestral diet is NOT the same thing. Here are some of the problems with paleo:

An array of healthy, ancestral indigenous foods with origins from coast to coast.

An array of healthy, ancestral indigenous foods with origins from coast to coast.

1. Paleo is a term that comes from Western science and practices. It is not an indigenous concept or idea. Paleo refers to the paleolithic era, which is a period of time in which "neanderthals" or cave-people existed. Non-Natives hold their "cavepeople" ancestors on a pedestal and emulate their dietary habits from this era because it is the closest connection they can find to a period in which their people ate in this healthier way. But, we as Native people know very well that our people have been eating in our own healthy way for thousands of years, including recent history and today. Non-Natives could probably learn a lot from Indigenous diets and observe that they are similar to their "paleo" concepts yet actually more well-rounded and healthy. However, they insist on de-legitimizing or ignoring Indigenous culture and would rather promote Paleo because this allows them to connect the original source of these ideas and life-ways with their own European heritage. Ultimately, we should not use the term "paleo" because it is a concept originated in western science and has nothing to do with Native people or culture.

2. Paleo diet is limited and restrictive. If you look up books or sources on how to eat paleo, you will see that they are very strict regarding what you can and cannot eat. Some of the items on their list for "okay" foods include things like bacon, chicken, and other stuff that our ancestors never ate. Other things on their "not okay" list include things like beans, wild rice, and other foods that are not only "okay" but that are critically important to the livelihood of our indigenous cultures and bodies. In an ancestral diet, it is acknowledged that a one-size-fits-all approach never works. Not only are ancestral foods different from tribal nation to tribal nation, but each person as an individual — no matter what your ethnicity or heritage — operates and functions differently. It's important to pay attention to your body and eat what is good for you. The paleo diet is far too specific and restrictive, and it is simply dangerous and unwise to prescribe the same foods to all people.

3. Paleolithic era promotes a linear concept of time as opposed to a circular notion of time. In indigenous cultures, we acknowledge that time is circular, not linear. When we refer to "ancestral" foods and "original" ingredients, we do not mean foods that our ancestors used to eat (past tense). Instead, we refer to foods that our ancestors have been eating for generations, never stopped, and that our people continue to eat. We do not cut off the timeline at some arbitrary point. Paleo, on the other hand, refers to foods that European ancestors ate millions of years ago and stopped eating. Indigenous foods are central to our cultures and always have been, and so it is important that we acknowledge ancestral foods as a living and breathing concept, alive in the present as much as they were in the past. Native people do not come from a static culture, but paleo foods represent a relic of the past — a figment in the imagination of non-Natives and a disconnectedness from their past to present.

4. Paleo fails to foster a holistic understanding of Indigenous food, culture, economics, and ceremony. In the paleo diet, there is little to no emphasis placed on the processes surrounding food harvesting/gathering/seed-saving/hunting, the spirituality of food, or the significance of food to culture and ceremony. Ancestral foods, on the other hand, are and have always been central to indigenous cultures, and the processes by which these foods are gathered and harvested and the significance that they play in our economies and cultures cannot be underestimated. In order to follow a paleo diet, it is okay to just go to the grocery store, spend a lot of money on products that are marketed as "primal" or "caveman," and go about your day. Ancestral foods or indigenous foods, on the other hand, are much more connected to land, culture and ceremony in significant ways that vary from nation to nation. From whale hunting in the far north to agriculture in the southwest (the list goes on and on), indigenous foods mean far more than grocery shopping and crossfit fuel.

Final Thoughts:

Nutritionists agree that the Paleo diet gets one thing right: they encourage cutting down on processed foods and adjusting the ratio of nutrients to increase fats/proteins and decrease sugars. It is an improvement from the average American diet, thus we are not judging or blaming anybody who has tried out a paleo model. However, as Indigenous people it is important and should be empowering to know that a better model for you is eating in line with what your ancestors used to eat, have always been eating and continue to eat today. Why eat what white cavepeople ate when foods from your own culture are more holistically healthy and right under your nose? Ancestral foods are nutritious, culturally significant, and surely the best option for indigenous minds, bodies, and wellbeing.


Elder Fitness! Chair Yoga Poses for Everybody

Elder Fitness! Chair Yoga Poses for Everybody

“When we focus our energies internally we discover our strength to heal ourselves. Our ancestors lived in a way of balance, in the Navajo culture this is Hozho. “Hozho” is a Navajo belief, shared by other Indigenous beliefs, of a natural balance in the Universe of all things. It is each person's right and responsibility to create a balance in life so that we can contribute to our communities and build stronger families. When we learn how to cope with the stresses of life this helps us to make healthy choices for ourselves.” - Christine Means