Meet The Couple Bringing Indigenous Wellness Into The Modern Day
As a 20-something living in New York City, Chelsea Luger tried out more fitness classes than you can imagine.
"I really should have started a blog about that," she laughs on a call to mbg. But when Luger started to think a little more critically about where this passion for movement was coming from, an idea for a much larger project began to take shape.
"One day it clicked that there's a direct connection between my interest in fitness and my traditional culture," says Luger, a Native American who grew up with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. For Luger, this realization was empowering—and she wanted to share it with other Natives across the country.
How indigenous wellness got lost.
There's a massive disparity between Native Americans' traditional way of life and the conditions that they live in today. Many indigenous practices, which call on an intimate relationship with nature, have been lost over decades of colonialism and industrialism.
"We don't have terms in our language for 'wellness,' and it's because a lot of our indigenous practices are automatically wellness-based," explains Collins, referencing practices like eating foraged foods as an example. Today, a lack of access to the right resources is leaving many Native populations empty-handed.
"People are living in food deserts, where they don't have access to the food they used to subsist on," Collins says.
In addition to chronic diseases like diabetes, Native Americans are now more prone to higher rates of drug abuse and alcoholism. This is especially true in younger populations, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native Americans ages 10 to 24.
"Many of the health disparities that Native communities face are parallel to the greater American population," Luger adds. "They're just heightened because our communities suffered from such an abrupt and severe economic disruption."
Luger and Collins, a photographer by trade, hope their platform can help Native communities around the country feel less resigned to unhealthy and unfulfilling ways of living.
What we can all learn from Native American populations.
Part of the couple's work is sharing writing and photography about their own healthy lifestyles. Their Instagram and blog are filled with drool-worthy plant-based meals and plenty of six-packs and fitspo.
Luger says this is intentional: "When we started, we were seeing very few images of healthy, active Natives—especially in mainstream media. We thought it was our responsibility as journalists to change that imagery and show that not all images of Native Americans have to come from a powwow."
They also travel around the country to host wellness workshops with indigenous people on reservations, as well as in nonprofits, schools, and corporations. (They recently hosted a Native fitness class at Nike's HQ, for example.) The lesson plans vary, but they typically cover some mix of Well for Culture's seven pillars of indigenous wellness: real food, movement, sleep, kinship, connection to the earth, sacred space, and peacefulness.
Luger and Collins have seen their teachings on how to bring ancient culture into the modern day—complete with outdoor exercise routines and healthy, plant-based recipes—be invaluable to both Native and non-Native populations.
"Indigenous wellness can be useful not just for indigenous people but for all people. It's rooted in our culture, but it has lot to offer and a lot to teach anybody," Luger says, though she notes that it's important that everyone acknowledge where these teachings are coming from in the first place. ("There is a respectful way to engage with indigenous culture and people. But let indigenous people lead that. Don't just take it.")
As for the lessons we can all learn from indigenous wellness, Luger says that respecting the earth, putting food at the center of culture, and finding balance in the everyday all rank high on the list: "I find it interesting that today many functional medicine practitioners are presenting this idea that for many people is revolutionary: We can't subcategorize things like food and fitness as separate because everything impacts everything else. [Native populations] have always had this practice of balance and recognizing the interconnectedness of all things."
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.