It’s Time to Stop Exploiting Native Cultures in Wellness. Here’s How

Indigenous wellness teacher Chelsey Luger works to maintain the integrity of native ritual and knowledge. Read on for ways to join her.

“It’s really only arguably the past maybe 150 years [sic] that we have largely deviated from what indigenous folks have been doing and continue to do in certain pockets of the world for those millions of years… That’s why I love what’s happening in science today… It’s so profound that it really just echoes this ancient wisdom. It’s like science is finally catching up or attempting to catch up with the validation of what people have known through their own evolutionary wisdom for literally millions of years.”  – Dr. Kelly Brogan

It is a fascinating time to be an Indigenous person in the wellness industry. Every day I observe non-Native people making better lives for themselves by learning lifestyle practices that Indigenous people have always understood, and it makes me feel ever more proud of the powerful knowledge that comes from my culture. The interesting thing is that, for better or for worse, people often don’t even realize that what they’re learning is Indigenous.

Sometimes it’s the little things: I’ll read a blog post about gratitude that reveals, “Did you know that listing things you’re grateful for in the morning can actually boost your mood?” I smile knowing that expressing gratitude with intention in the mornings has been a core tenet of most Native cultures since time immemorial. Sometimes it’s the bigger things: just as Italian explorers “discovered” America in 1492 (*wink*), Western scientists are now “discovering” countless revelations about wellness and the environment that Indigenous people have always known.

Despite overwhelming examples of Indigenous ideas touted by modern wellness, Native people or groups are often not credited or recognized for these contributions. In fact, it’s just the opposite. There is perhaps no other industry on the planet (aside from fashion, maybe) that is more guilty of pulling ideas and practices from global cultures and people of color while neglecting to fully understand these practices, study their origins, or give credit where credit is due. What’s worse is that the elitist aspect of the wellness industry fails to include Indigenous people or voices in substantial ways, meaning that while our techniques and methods are being used and sold for the benefit of others, our communities remain economically marginalized and shut out of the multibillion dollar industry that is wellness. It’s time to change that.

This is an extremely complex topic, and I don’t have all the answers. Still, there are several ways that all wellness teachers and professionals can recognize Indigenous contribution—affording more respect to Native people and culture where it’s due—and avoid cultural appropriation.

Familiarize yourself with the “diversity issue” in wellness.

The topic of Indigenous appropriation and exclusion cannot be discussed without addressing that there is a much larger issue with diversity in wellness that is only beginning to be addressed in meaningful ways. To start with, you can read about it here, here, or here.

Recognize that Indigenous experts exist, and ask to learn from them.

I would guess that the number one thing preventing wellness practitioners from consulting Indigenous people is that they fail to realize that Native communities are alive and well today, and that dozens of Native organizations and individuals all around the world who are experts in Indigenous wellness are available for consultation. Start by learning about the Native Wellness Institute, Well For Culture, and I20SP, and go from there.

Don’t steal, sell, or copyright Indigenous techniques or ideas.

Here’s an example. When I was pregnant last year, I read a book by a midwife who is now world famous and probably wealthy because she “revolutionized” midwifery with her Gaskin Technique. Where did this technique come from? Indigenous people. She went to Guatemala, studied with midwives there, returned to the U.S., trademarked the technique, and uses it to work with non-Native people today.

I’m not saying that she shouldn’t use the technique—I think it’s great that countless American women have benefitted from this Indigenous practice. But what I am saying is that it should not be named after a white woman, nor should she be credited (as she often is) as its inventor.

Another famous example: in 2009, a white “guru” / motivational speaker charged upwards of $10,000 for a sweat lodge ceremony that he had no right to lead, and three of the participants ended up tragically dying. (By contrast, there are no records of death from sweat lodge in any Native American community, ever). Ceremonies are not for fun and they are most certainly not for sale, ever. They are sacred traditions that should be left in the hands of those who truly understand them. This includes ayahuasca, sweat lodge, and many, many more.

Don’t appropriate Indigenous imagery in photos, apparel, marketing, or other merch.

I might actually lose my mind if I hear one more person refer to their fitness class as their “tribe,” or if I see another pilates instructor with a dreamcatcher tattoo, or if I see another mass-produced tipi used to market a wellness retreat. Headdresses are never okay, dressing up as a Native person is never okay, and you should discourage these practices in your circle of friends. You can learn more about Native American cultural appropriation at this amazing blog by Brown University professor Dr. Adrienne Keene.

Prioritize building relationships between the wellness world and communities of color.

You can’t actually respect a community until you know them, and so I encourage reaching out, engaging, and figuring out how to respectfully include Indigenous people in the wellness world. It will benefit all parties.

Chelsey Luger is a freelance journalist and wellness advocate based in Phoenix, Arizona, originally from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, High Country News, YES! Magazine, Indian Country Today Media Network, Al Jazeera America, Fusion, NowThis, and more. She is a trainer for the Native Wellness Institute and the cofounder of Well For Culture, an Indigenous wellness initiative.