You don’t need the gym to get fit.
Music to your ears? It should be. All you need is to step outside into your “earth gym.” No fancy equipment required.
Fitness trainer and holistic wellness advocate Chelsey Luger teaches the indigenous traditions that once kept tribal people in optimal health… but which have been replaced by packaged foods and cheap beer over the last century.
On this show with Chelsey, you’ll learn:
- How to work out without a gym
- Why processed food damages human health
- How to play very naughty ancestral game called Double-Ball
- And much more…
CHELSEY LUGER: HOW TO CONNECT WITH INDIGENOUS CULTURE
Abel: Chelsey Luger is a holistic wellness advocate, trainer, and journalist. She is also the co-creator of Well for Culture, providing holistic health advice drawn from North American indigenous tradition, including the concepts of ancestral eating and “earth gym.” Chelsey is a 2010 graduate of Dartmouth College – I actually discovered her work in the Dartmouth alumni magazine. (Go Big Green!)
What drove you to pursue health and wellness as a calling?
I’m Ojibwe and Lakota, from the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Very proud of that.
I grew up on a reservation in North Dakota, and where I grew up, we have a lot of strength and resilience because of everything that indigenous people have been through. But we also are plagued by a very high rate of health problems.
Now, it wasn’t until I was in college, and shortly thereafter, that I started to draw the connections between my indigenous culture and the importance of health and wellness. I started to see that so much of the teachings that come from my indigenous culture and traditions have applicability in our modern world.
Seeing all the health issues that are so prevalent and so present in reservation communities among all indigenous people, but also among mainstream Americans, sort of drove me to get passionate about fixing my own health and wellness and then spreading that information to whoever is interested in hearing it.
Abel: It’s pernicious, isn’t it? The way that big food industry has infiltrated our cultures and communities. Some of our ancestors were living harmoniously with nature, with the land; they had a spiritual connection with food.
When we traveled for the past two years, my wife and I went to a lot of places that were less touched by big food industry than, certainly, we are in the Western world. And that was one of the things we noticed—when you’re broadsided by food marketing as a community, and all of a sudden all you’ve got is Spam and corn dogs and Skittles and M&Ms and commercialized beer and tobacco on top of that… It can really lead to deterioration of not only the people’s health, but also the culture.
So how can we remedy that?
What we’ve seen is that our really healthy ancestral health is so recent. I mean, we’re talking about in indigenous communities, as recently as 150 or 200 years ago, where our people were largely living off traditional foods, and they were in their traditional lifestyles and their traditional economies.
For example, where I’m from in the Plains, we have the buffalo hunting economy, and we were a very active people, a very healthy people. It’s because of the introduction of all of these foods from the corporations—and even for native people, the introduction of a farming lifestyle has been damaging to our health. Not only that, but the introduction of alcohol.
Alcohol and drugs have caused huge problems in Native American communities, and that’s what we’re trying to remedy.
Abel: It just seems like the power of addictive substances… and I’m including alcohol, tobacco, and food in the same category here, because they’re all hyper-processed and nothing like what you would’ve had in nature anyway.
How can you help people survive the onslaught of all this terrible addictive stuff?
We are promoting the idea that wellness is our culture. So to give you a little bit of background of Well for Culture: My partner Thosh and I, the cofounder of Well for Culture, we met over Instagram, which is so interesting because a lot of health and wellness people make their connections over Instagram. But we’re both indigenous—he’s from a tribe here in Arizona and I’m from a tribe in North Dakota—and we connected over this idea that health and wellness really is so prevalent in our culture.
For most of history, health and wellness have been at the center of our culture—our traditional foods, our dances, our traditional games. When Thosh and I met, we said, “Okay, we need to put a name to this contemporary indigenous wellness movement,” and I started asking questions.
“Okay, what’s the purpose of being well?” And he started rattling off answers: “It’s about being well for our families, it’s about being well for our communities we can take a stand against all of these stereotypes and all of these horrible things that continue to plague Native American people.” And he said, “It’s about being well for ourselves. Oh, it’s about being well for our culture.” So I think that’s a concept that, honestly, anybody from any culture can utilize.
Wellness isn’t just about looking good, or the aesthetics of it. Wellness is about being well, so you can take care of those around you.
And that happens to be a message that in modern times, we’re starting to realize is resonating really well with native people. It’s been very difficult to convince native people to work out because it’s going to make them look better. We don’t have this largely superficial media bias in our culture. Seriously. So it’s just a message that has really started to resonate with our people, and we think it’s a message that can resonate with anybody.
Abel: I love that, because whether I like it or not—and if I’m going to be totally honest, I kind of do like it: what we talk about on this show, it’s called alternative health… but it counterculture.
There’s conventional Western medicine. That screwed me over big time. That’s one of the big reasons I started this show, to talk about different ways of navigating health, and in fact, reclaiming our history and connection with plants, with food, with the land…
My background is that when I was an infant, I became ill with a temperature of 106 degrees that we just couldn’t shake. And Western medicine didn’t help. My mom was a nurse at the time. She eventually went on to be a holistic nurse practitioner, but most of it was because she saw how little help I was getting from conventional medicine. To this day I’m allergic to almost every modern antibiotic.
Mom took her career to the holistic realm, became an herbalist, and for my entire life as I was being raised, it was on tinctures and balms from wild herbs and infusions from the backyard, and eating a lot of wild plants.
At the time, it was just my mom. And the way that I was raised by my crazy hippy-dippy mom (I love you, Mom, if you’re listening) was something that I kind of distanced myself from as I grew up—after I graduated from Dartmouth, wanted to get rid of my loans, took that big fancy job, got that big fancy insurance, and was led right down the road to a half dozen different prescription medications in six months and sentenced to a life of being on those drugs or being kind of in a hazy gray area.
Now, it’s cool to get into holistic alternative health and whatever. But the good news is that we still got that counterculture thing, and I think that can be a great way to ignite passion in people who have been \ screwed over by the system. Whether it’s big food or conventional medicine, a lot of people are starting to get the message that being healthy is not only our right, but our responsibility. Not just for ourselves, but the culture at large. If we want to survive as a species, we’ve got to get a handle on this now.
It’s so important, and our health is relevant to anything that we do.
You find in the Western world everything is compartmentalized. You have your career here, you have your health here, you have your family here, you have your hobbies over here. Well, in the indigenous world, one thing that’s really beautiful about our cultures—and of course, indigenous culture is diverse. There are over 566 tribes in the United States alone. Some people don’t realize that. And then of course, we have indigenous people globally. But anyway, one of the commonalities between many indigenous cultures is that we have this really holistic understanding of the earth and of our place in it, and of our lives. And our people have always had this really holistic understanding of health and wellness.
So one of the things that came to mind as you were telling me that story is that we have a couple of phrases that permeate a lot of indigenous cultures. One of those phrases is that food is medicine, and another one is that water is life.
And if you think about it, a lot of the modern health movements that are sort of considered alternative medicine are acknowledging both of those things. We’re understanding that food is our most important preventive medicine.
We’re understanding that we need water, and we need to respect our water, and we need to consume a good amount of our water—clean water—in order to survive and thrive. And again, those are things that indigenous people have always known, and have always practiced. And it’s really interesting to see bigger health movements picking up on that now.
HOW TO PLAY INDIGENOUS DOUBLE BALL
Abel: And it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next few years, because it’ll be hard for counterculture to go mainstream—maybe, maybe not. Hopefully with people like you getting the message out there, it won’t be. We can actually help people. But traditional media is something we don’t need to get into right now.
Anyway, let’s move on to movement. I saw something and I have to bring this up because I was on your website—which is great, by the way—and I watched one of the videos, and there was a game called Double Ball. It looks essentially like throwing buffalo scrotum at each other onto a stick, which sounds like the best game ever. So tell us about that.
It’s so fun. Fun fact, we were just playing that game at the Nike N7 Summit at Nike World Headquarters this weekend. So yeah, you go to Nike World Headquarters and you might just see some Double Ball getting played. So Double Ball is one of our traditional games. This is another component of the Well for Culture movement, is reintroducing and making these traditional games that have sort of been lost from our culture relevant again.
Double Ball comes from Cree territory. There is an elder who works with another organization that we work with a lot called the Native Wellness Institute, and his name is Charlie Tailfeathers. He grew up playing that game in Cree territory in Canada, and so he teaches that game now to indigenous youth. And it is a game that started with the buffalo hunting days.
So of course, we used to use every part of the buffalo; we still do when we harvest a buffalo. We have great respect for that animal, so we use it in so many different ways. To clothe us, to feed us, to take care of us, really. And one of the ways that we take care of ourselves is by playing games and being active. So they would use the buffalo’s scrotum as sort of the game piece, the ball. Then you have these sticks and you toss it around, and it almost looks like lacrosse.
But it’s so fun and so cool to see native kids today playing that game and picking up on that game, because they just pick up on it immediately. They love it. You can just see that it’s something they’ve been missing. We have so many things that we’ve been missing from our culture because they were stolen away from us or taken away from us. So, we’re bringing those things back, and traditional games are just one of those things. Traditional foods are another one of those things, and it’s so fun and it’s so exciting to see this all getting really good again.
HOW PROCESSED FOOD DESTROYS HUMAN HEALTH
Abel: What about the foods? Like are there foods in particular that stand out to you?
Oh, yeah. So again, I’m an Anishinaabe—or Ojibwe, some people call it—or you might have heard there were Chippewa, that’s from my mom’s side of my culture. And we’re a people that have always eaten wild rice. So have you ever had Ojibwe wild rice in particular?
Abel: I’ve had wild rice. But I’m not sure if I’ve had that kind in particular.
Okay, cool. So it is a little bit different and I highly recommend looking into it. There is a tribe called Red Lake that sells it, and there’s a tribe called White Earth that sells it online. And they harvest it traditionally from their communes, so there’s absolutely no modern technology involved in the harvesting or the growing of this rice. It’s purely organic and it’s a really healthy form of carbohydrate.
So that’s one of my favorite traditional indigenous foods, and of course, I’m Lakota also and we’re a buffalo hunting culture. So any time I can get my hands on some good bison meat, loving it. But again, a lean quality protein, a quality source of animal fat, that’s what we’re all about. There are literally hundreds, thousands of indigenous foods that not only were at one time very prevalent, but that our people have managed to hang on to and continue to eat. The difference is, back in the day they were the only things that we ate.
Now, our people commonly eat traditional foods. There are some families who’ve never lost that. But in many cases, we eat our traditional foods on special occasions.
It’s very empowering to sort of be learning about this and promoting folks to start incorporating these into their daily lives again. I remember once as a kid, somebody was making fun of me, and they we’re like, “Oh, why don’t we open up a Native American restaurant? What would we have there?” And I honestly couldn’t answer them because I didn’t really know. I didn’t realize that we actually do have really diverse diets and all these wonderful, amazing foods. So it’s so fun now to be understanding that again.
Abel: Very cool. Now, one of the most compelling things I think that can empower us is looking back at our past. Especially people in their eighties, in their nineties, just running thirty miles a day like it’s no work at all, like it’s fun.
What are we physically capable of as humans?
Again, part of the issue is that while our people have been super, super healthy and fit since time immemorial, as we say, it really is the past 200 years that we’ve seen a huge decline and deterioration in our health as a people.
So, I do hear a lot of stories about these super athletes that were not only around, but were common. It’s like every man and woman in traditional native culture has had these extreme athletic abilities and the ability to survive with Earth and with nature.
For example, where I come from in Lakota culture, every summer, teenage boys would be sent off on a journey. They’re like, “Okay, it’s summertime, we’re not as busy right now, you guys have a little bit of free time, go adventure.” One of the boys was recorded as running as far as Mexico, because he came back and what he described was a man-dog, but in reality what he saw was, of course, a monkey.
So we know now that he ran as far as Mexico. And this isn’t like the 1800s. It’s not that long ago. So this kind of thing was common, very common, and we want to get back to that. That’s what we’re trying to get back to. We do have a lot of young Native American athletes who are super fit and doing really awesome in sports. But some of those other stories that I’ve heard from my grandparent’s generation and earlier, we’re not seeing those today, but we believe it’s going to come back.
Abel: How do we help people make that shift from being in a place of sickness and ill health to embracing this idea that fitness and eating ancestral foods are part of our heritage?
Well, that’s exactly what it is. It’s about encouraging folks to draw that connection, and to empower themselves through the idea that they can heal themselves from within. They can use food as medicine, they can reconnect to the earth, utilize the earth gym.
This is something, again, that indigenous people have always known, that Western scientists today are figuring out, and that anybody can do. It’s applicable to all of us, and making health and wellness a part of our culture is so important, and that’s why we should all be well for culture.
WHAT IS EARTH GYM?
Abel: I watched your video about earth gym and loved it. It was a workout with rocks and body weight.
I was down in Peru not so long ago, and it was almost the exact same workout that I was doing. You just kind of look around, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s a big, heavy rock. I’m going to try to do some squats with that.”
I think a lot of people really get tripped up. They’re just like, “I have to be in a gym. I must be in a gym to work out. I need a treadmill, or… ” Fill in the blank there. When in fact, what we really need to do is go outside, take a breath of fresh air, get a little bit of sun, and then look for something to play with.
So what are the things that you’re teaching people to do as it relates to exercise? Because the way you folks have been describing physical activity on your website really resonates with me.
The earth gym is such a fun concept, and again, it’s kind of like, “Duh! This is right in front of me, and I just didn’t realize it all along.” So I used to totally ascribe to the, “I need a gym to work out,” thing. I was living in New York City for a while when I was going to Columbia, and I was working part time as a trainer at Equinox, which is a really beautiful, world-class gym. And yeah, I used to feel like, “Man, if I weren’t working here, I would need to be…” I spent hundreds of dollars trying out different fitness studios and different gyms, and it’s like, “Why wasn’t I just utilizing Central Park more often?” It’s like we all have some type of outdoor space around us, and getting out there and just embracing the challenges of the elements and the land, as opposed to looking at it as a hindrance. So we walk into a gym and it’s this really structured, corporate space—like everything fits into a box, everything is in its own category. You’ve got the cardio section here, and the weights over here.
Indigenous people are really good at de-compartmentalizing things, or never putting things into a box in the first place, and so we use that concept of the earth gym too. It’s like you embrace the challenges of the elements. It’s raining. Okay, that’s going to make me maybe slip around a little bit, and have to work on my motor skills. It’s cold; it’s going to add a challenge to breathing, and to sort of getting it done, and being out there. It’s too hot. Well, I’m going to be sweating a little bit more. The rock that you’re picking up to squat, it doesn’t say how much it weighs, and it’s not going to have this pretty, smooth handle like a kettle bell, but it’s a little bit of weight and it’ll get the job done, right?
You have to work a lot harder; you’ve got to toughen up your hands a little bit. And that’s so fun, once you learn to embrace it. Same thing for just hiking, taking a walk, for those of us who aren’t quite at the elite fitness levels yet. Earth gym is for everybody. You can do it at any level of physical activity, and that’s one of the great things about it. Children can do it, old people can do it, anybody can do it. And it’s really a great stress reliever. And again, it’s a concept that we’ve always had and we’re just trying to bring that back.
Something I would point out that is important to us when we go out and we work out on the land, is that this is maybe a little bit different from what other folks do. But it’s a part of our culture to really show respect, and to honor—it’s a part of a lot of people’s culture, but particularly something that’s reinforced in our culture, to show respect for the land wherever you are.
We have a lot of traditional medicines, like tobacco, sweet grass, sage, all of these things. We’ll take a piece of it, we’ll make an offering, and literally just say, “Thank you for letting me be here. Thank you for this beautiful day.” Simple words. And just spiritually connecting yourself to the land where you’re at. And when you see a rock and you pick it up, understanding that that rock is something that should be respected. And so you put it back where you found it, you don’t throw it around. Just like when you go to a gym. It’s like common courtesy; you put the weights back on the rack, that kind of thing. So utilizing that same mentality when you go out. If not even more of an air of respect when you go up and work out on mountain, or something like that.
Abel: Right. And that applies to food as well, right? It’s quite different choking down a greasy burrito in the front seat of your car versus having a spiritual connection with your food. So what can people who are listening do to kind of get a little bit closer to that connection that so many of us really need?
The main part for sure would be just always giving thanks, offering thanks. And I know that some people are in the habit of doing that, no matter what culture you come from. But it’s really important, I think, to always feel super grateful for the food that’s in front of you. And one of these ways that we naturally become more grateful for it, is by harvesting it, or growing it ourselves. Or acknowledging at the very least, the work that goes into harvesting and growing food, or hunting food, or fishing, or whatever it may be. This is something I’m actually working on myself. I’m not going to lie. I don’t hunt; I don’t fish. My family has gardens, but I don’t personally have one.
These are things that I’m also trying to reconnect with, because I understand how important and how significant they have always been in my culture. I’m recognizing that it’s a part of my culture that I’m missing, and trying to bring that back, because I really do think it’s important that we all appreciate our food as much as possible. And then we’re so much more likely to choose the things that are healthier for us, and we’re so much more likely to appreciate these healthy foods. And rather than saying, “Oh, this doesn’t super stimulate my taste buds right away,” we can at least appreciate that it’s healthy, and it’s whole, and it’s making us who we are.
Abel: When you combine new technologies with this old way of thinking, it comes together beautifully. And one example of that… my wife is actually from Arizona as well, and she’s got a little bit of Cree on her mom’s side. I’m probably pretty much the whitest dude out there, but according to genetic testing, I’ve even got a little bit of indigenous, native mojo going on in there too.
You said before this interview you kind of live in two worlds, or in between worlds, and a lot of us assume that we’re “domesticated” at this point. We’re just the way we are: we’re living in the box, we’re eating cat chow.
But as soon as we give ourselves a little taste of earth gym for instance, or eating ancestral foods, or even just sitting down, saying thanks to the person who raised your food—meeting your farmer, shaking their hand, looking at them in the eye—you start to approach all this a little bit differently, and it turns something on in you.
As the shamans say, it’s like your spirit remembers. “I remember.”
Yeah, absolutely. And again, with indigenous people, these concepts have been ubiquitous as recently as 200 years ago in our cultures. For non-indigenous cultures, a little bit longer ago, but nonetheless at one time, were ubiquitous. So just acknowledging that, and really getting back to your roots, it’s very empowering and it’s healthy for you.
Abel: Your approach seems to be: “Let’s reconnect with who we are as humans, and that’s how we heal the world.” And that’s a massive difference between what you see today, in the mainstream diet and fitness industry.
I would also just like to point out that sometimes people don’t realize that indigenous people are not only something from the past; and they’re not only something that you find in the Amazon, living totally different lifestyles from Western people. Many of us are like me, where we’re probably living very close to how anybody else lives. We’re practicing our traditional cultures, but also living in the modern world, and we have much to teach and we have much to add. We have much to contribute to the conversation, the wellness conversation.
You see some folks getting really amped on, “Oh, I’m working out with my tribe today, I’m doing this primal meal,” or “I’m buying this bar at Whole Foods that was blessed by a shaman.” But then they’re not realizing that they live literally within twenty miles of an Indian reservation, and they don’t know anything about the tribe that’s right there, and they never asked them any questions.
So I think just as a result of many different things that have happened throughout history, indigenous people have been looked at as more primitive, or as less scientific, or not as knowledgeable as those around us. But in my mind, it’s maybe a different type of science; it’s a different type of worldview. Obviously, some of the things that we were doing were working. Almost everything that we were doing was working really, really well, until it was very heavily disrupted. So we’re just trying to get that back, and you know we want to share that with other people. Embracing some of these indigenous concepts of health and wellness is a perfect way for people to engage in indigenous culture without appropriating our culture, because that’s another thing we see.
We see people—like it’s really trendy to go to Coachella and wear a headdress or something. Everybody wants to be native until it’s time to actually be native. Like, come on, guys. This is a respectful way of engaging with us, with our culture, engaging through the means of traditional foods and wellness, and understanding to respect the earth, and do the earth gym and all that kind of stuff. It’s totally cool, and we welcome anybody who’s interested in learning these concepts.
WHERE TO FIND CHELSEY LUGER
Abel: You’re making wonderful inroads between those two worlds, and I love the work that you’re doing.
Before we go, could you please tell folks what you’re working on next and where they can find you?
And what are we working on next? Wow, we’re just continually revamping the website. We just did an event with Nike N7 and we’re going to kind of continue that collaboration. And we’ll just be traveling the world doing workshops, and maybe we’ll be at a reservation near you one of these days.
Abel: I can’t wait. And I would love to check that out and maybe play that buffalo scrotum game.
Yeah, you would love it.
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How do you stay active outdoors? Leave a comment below to let us know what you thought of this interview with Chelsey!