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The circle of wellness: bringing health and hope to Native communities

Diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease risk are looming threats to the indigenous people of North America. How can you help — and what can you learn from their cultures?

Training Trainers in the Southwest

John Blievernicht, MA, is another non-Native fitness professional. He has earned the trust of tribal leaders on the Navajo reservation near his home in Flagstaff, Arizona. “I always tell people I’m just a white guy from the suburbs of Chicago,” he says. “When I moved to Flagstaff, I was talking to a Native American on a running track and he invited me out to do a program. I saw how much need there is. People said I wouldn’t be accepted out there, or that I wouldn’t stick around because I was white. But you can’t listen to that. You have to prove yourself.”

Blievernicht knew there was an interest in bringing physical activity programs from outside the reservation, but he believed it would be valuable to train local Native Americans. With cofounders Elfreida Barton and Brian Laban, he created the Native American Fitness Council (NAFC), a program that will offer eight to 10 certifications in the Navajo Nation in 2006.

Sheer distance is a challenge on the sprawling Navajo Reservation, which is the largest reservation in the country, covering more than 27,000 square miles. Blievernicht puts in some long days, often with 3 1/2 hours of driving. But there are rewards.

“I may take off at 4:30 AM, but I get to see the sun rise over Monument Valley, which is incredible.”

Blievernicht has learned a lot of lessons along the way. “For my own personal growth, I talked to people who could teach me about the culture. You have to do your homework and then learn as you go along... Rather than try to understand [the Navajo Culture] completely, I’ve learned to just be respectful of it. I’ve learned it is not my place to try to build on their traditions.”

The NAFC certifies personal trainers, group fitness instructors, and community fitness leaders. “There are a number of strengths in the community that are assets for developing activity programs,” Blievernicht says,” such as a great love of sports. There will be 5,000 people in a high-school gym in the middle of the desert — and [there is] a strong history of running.”

But Blievernicht cautions, “People need to be patient and have their heart in this in order to be accepted.” Rather than pursuing grant funding, Blievernicht has decided to contract with hospitals and wellness centers that have grant funds. “Word is getting out, and we have a good reputation. Now people are calling us to start programs.”

Time to Come Home

NAFC cofounder Elfreida Barton, a Navajo, is a wellness center coordinator through Indian Health Services. She lives in Fort Defiance, Arizona, just minutes from Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. Her clients, particularly diabetes patients, are referred from nearby hospitals, with funding support provided for both prevention and intervention. Barton is working to bring a variety of programs to the Navajo Nation, including kickboxing, indoor cycling, Resist-A-Ball and Body Bar classes, walking clubs, low impact, and step.

“We give people exposure to new programming, because we don’t have access to Bally Total Fitness or Gold’s Gym,” says Barton. “We have people who love to exercise and are very motivated to be instructors and trainers — they just need access.”

Nine of the 119 chapter houses on the reservation have a wellness center. Only about 40 instructors are actively teaching, for a population of over 250,000. “Right now there is a lot of push in the Navajo Nation for community empowerment. Exercise and wellness are being put on the forefront because of so many families are faced with diabetes and are becoming more aware of long-term consequences. But the remoteness of the communities is a challenge. People here often drive more than an hour to work, so workplace programs would be helpful. Instructors can get free training and often volunteer their services, but they need money for gas. There’s so much that’s needed: music systems, equipment, corporate sponsors, intertribal programs.”

Barton says it has taken 10 years to get fitness “on the map” in the Navajo Nation. “But I learned from a former boss that if you can make a difference with a few people, they will go home, and their families will see the difference and tell more people. I tell my instructors that exercise is contagious. You just have to love who you are and what you do, and it will show and bring people in.”

Barton recalls the moment she decided to help her Native community. “After college, I got a job working in women’s fitness and I loved working there. But one day I was on my bike and tears came down my face. God was saying, ‘You’ve worked hard to get your degree. Now it’s time to come home and bring this back to your people.’ So I resigned, went home and started knocking on doors.”

Martial Arts on the Reservation

Brian Laban, cofounder of NAFC and a certified personal trainer, is a Hopi/Tewa and lives in the Hopi Village of Moenkopi, Arizona, near Tuba City. He is the founder of the Black Belt Academy, Hopi studio, opened under the direction of his Grand Master, Ha, Sung Ho.

“Martial arts and Native American philosophies… have similar attitudes of honor, respect for your elders, family values, courtesy, helping other people, and helping the community,” Laban says. “A large part of Native American belief is to help keep the whole world in balance and harmony, believing that everything affects everything else.”

Laban enjoys the satisfaction of helping people. “It’s so rewarding to see kids with self-esteem and anger management problems change their attitudes. You can see how proud they are [when] doing the martial arts demonstrations. It really helps.” He adds,” My grandfather was a medicine man and died early in a car accident. Now I feel I’m able to use my work to help people heal.”

The community has been very supportive of Laban’s work. “There was a woman who fell and broke her arm and turned into a hermit. She wouldn’t go to town or to the store. After I worked with her, she started coming back to the senior center and enjoying walking and getting out. She told me she had been scared and hadn’t wanted to be a burden to anyone — then she thanked me for giving her back her life.”

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