Northwest Tribe Brings Powwow Tradition To The Gym

Apr 6, 2017

In Indian Country, a gym membership isn’t a cultural norm. The incidence of heart disease and obesity are high there. So northern Idaho's Coeur D’Alene tribe is incorporating culture into its fitness programs.

It’s not Sweatin’ to the Oldies or High Intensity Interval Training. It’s powwow.

The Coeur D’Alene tribe is known for two things: its hospitality and its powwow. The cultural celebration is one of the largest native gatherings in the nation.

So, the tribe borrowed from that tradition and created an exercise program based on powwow dancing.

The tribe has released a workout DVD. The series includes a warm up and breaks down moves for six dances typical at Powwows, including the men’s fancy dance.

The “hip move” involves lifting your knee up and then circling it out to the side, all while bouncing to the drum beat.

A tough workout

The tribe also hosts weekly classes at the Coeur D’Alene Wellness Center.

Several times a week people gather here on the second floor to dance along to the DVD together. Tribal member Ryan Ortivez gave a lot of credit to Powwow Sweat

“I lost 13 and a half pounds,” he said. “I’m aiming to lose 40 pounds by the end of the year.”

Ortivez quit smoking this year. He also gave up junk food and soft drinks.

Wellness Center Director LoVina Louie keeps everyone moving through the various dances. Sometimes, she pauses the DVD to workshop the most complicated moves.

She said it’s harder than it looks.

“If you don’t do it regularly, your calves will hurt, like you’re just out of breath, because you’re just constantly bouncing,” Louie said. “It’s almost like jump roping for 25 minutes straight.”

Fighting obesity on the reservation

“We know for example that American Indians and Alaska Natives are 60 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites and so they have real health challenges in their communities,” said Doctor Terry O’Toole with the CDC’s Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity Division.

Since 1999, the agency has funded requests for community based health projects. O’Toole’s office granted the Coeur D’Alene tribe $2 million to develop Powwow Sweat. It also supports a community garden here, an effort to promote indigenous foods and a project that stocks the reservation’s gas station market with healthy food options.

“Combating obesity requires more than just one initiative or one program,” O’Toole said. “It takes a variety of what we call population based strategies.”

O’Toole said the goal is to achieve community-wide results. But, according to Louie, that goal isn’t easy on a reservation, because mainstream fitness and nutrition programs don’t meet the needs of tribal members.

“Most programming is only physical, or it’s only nutrition,” Louie said. “It’s in these compartments whereas, we’re more holistic.”

It’s that combination of Native tradition and exercise that keeps Ortivez and his neighbors coming to class each week to watch the DVD and dance alongside each other.

“It’s a lot more attractive than doing jogging or the bicycle for me, because it also relates to my culture,” Ortivez said.

In addition to losing weight and getting healthy, Ortivez wants to be in good enough shape to dance in the tribe’s Powwow this summer. If he does, it will be his first time.