Thosh Collins (Onk-Akimel O’odham/Wa-zha-zhi/Haudenosaunee) and Chelsey Luger (Anishinaabe/Lakota) are on a mission to help everyone embrace Indigenous ancestral knowledge. A decade ago, the couple founded Well for Culture, a grassroots organization promoting healthy living among tribal communities, whose members face disproportionately high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and early death.
But the duo’s principles — outlined in their insightful book, The Seven Circles: Indigenous Teachings for Living Well — aren’t just for Native Americans. All of us can learn to live better through the holistic, culturally appropriate focus areas of food, movement, sleep, ceremony, sacred space, land, and community. Here, they discuss what it means to decolonize wellness, how everyone can benefit from Indigenous teachings, and what they envision for a healthier future.
Experience Life: From your perspective, what does it mean to decolonize wellness?
Thosh Collins: When we’re talking within the context of Native communities, we typically don’t use the term “wellness,” because if we look at our original lifeways, they are inherently wellness-based. But when we’re talking about folks living within dominant society, there are a lot of ways to go into that.
It begins with shifting away from a focus on appearance and instead thinking about taking care of our mental and physical health on a physiological level. Those are outcomes of how we eat, how we move, how stressed we are, and how connected we are to others. We do this not just for ourselves, but to be a good parent, auntie, neighbor, and citizen.
Dominant society also needs to get out of its tribalistic mentality — us versus them, Paleo versus vegan, CrossFit versus yoga. Having two opposing sides is a very American way of thinking, which we see in politics. Instead, it’s important to look at evidence-based science as well as traditions that have been carried on by our families for generations. There’s a reason why your great-great grandmother cooked a certain way or only ate at certain times of day. Decolonized wellness is considering all of that and building your own lifestyle.
EL: How do the seven circles of well-being keep our lives in balance?
Chelsey Luger: We created this model for wellness in circles because we understand from our ancestral teachings that everything in life is interconnected. These seven modes of lifestyle allowed our ancestors to thrive across Indigenous nations, which all have teachings associated with these areas.
We noticed that most models for health were made in lists or pillars, which architecturally speaking is a very Western model that doesn’t allow room for interconnection, expansion, and contraction. Health is not linear; it’s not “I’m healed. I’m done.” We’re going to be in and out of balance in certain areas and continue on this journey throughout life. Circles allow for a continual, dynamic lifestyle, which really makes sense to people once they see it.
TC: The circle structure also pushes beyond compartmentalized thinking, which dominant society tends to do with everything from the body to time to the environment. If there’s one lesson I hope people take away from our book, it’s that everything is inextricably connected, from inside of us to our relations with other living beings to our interactions with the land.
I encourage readers to think of themselves as the middle of a circle with the seven circles around them. If you move one circle, you’re going to shake them all. Movement, for example, causes the body to release feel-good neurotransmitters that affect your mood and clarity. Meditation is shown to have positive physiological effects, like improving blood pressure.
There’s robust scientific evidence to show how each of these circles contributes to our health. How we treat ourselves in turn has a ripple effect on our family, our coworkers, our community, and our world.
EL: Why are these principles especially important for Native Americans, who face marked health disparities?
CL: Our primary audience is and always will be Indigenous communities. When we’re working with Native people, we really focus on continuity of lifeways as opposed to dismantling colonialism. Of course we acknowledge that systemic genocide took place, but we try not to fixate on removing something that the Western world imposed on us.
We founded Well for Culture with the intention of offering a culturally relevant wellness model for Indigenous people, because so many of us are in a state of reclaiming our health due to disparities we’ve suffered as a result of the colonial process.
TC: From our travels throughout Native country, we see Indigenous communities in a state of preservation, revitalization, evolution, or all of these simultaneously. Our communities were affected differently based on their location and how American colonialism came westward.
Some communities, such as our relatives out east, are really just putting their worldviews, social structures, and cultural practices back together. Others, like the Pueblos in the Southwest, still have fairly intact lifeways — with all these little kids running around speaking their language — and are evolving.
There are still silos in Native country, like the wellbriety movement, tribal food sovereignty, language revitalization, and more, that should all be working together at the table. With Well for Culture, we’re bringing together these Indigenous practices with Western technology to meet our needs here and now. When we present in communities, elders often tell us, “This is what we need to be doing again; this is the way I was raised.” That’s incredible validation.
EL: When you look to the future of Native health, what do you envision?
TC: We hope we have created a model for Native health and human service departments so we see a positive effect in communities at a systemic level. For instance, in Salt River, where I come from, they’re using the seven circles to try to raise the life expectancy from 52 to 57 by 2027.
Way down the line, we also have a vision for ourselves as elders. I think everyone should have a vision of how they will think, act, and present themselves to the world, if you make it that far. We hope we will really be living to the fullest so that we’re not burdened with disease and placing that burden on our family.
CL: I’m really impressed with our youth as well as younger parents who are breaking cycles of trauma and rooting our children in these powerful, positive aspects of Indigenous culture. Thosh and I grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s, and as kids, we didn’t always have the freedom to be proud of who we are.
Today, Indigenous kids still face discrimination, but they have access to plenty of resources so they can grow up proud. They can see representation in everything from leaders in Congress to Reservation Dogs on TV to educational TikTok videos. That’s all connected to our wellness as Native people so we can start from a base of feeling worthy and feeling motivated to continue our traditions. That’s the root of our health.
It’s so heartwarming to know that as a people we never lost that, and right now we have this ball of energy that keeps growing in Native communities. I’m just excited to see how the youth take this vision for health into the future.