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'Powwow Sweat' Promotes Fitness Through Traditional Dance

In Indian Country, a gym membership is not a cultural norm and the incidence of heart disease and obesity are high. Native Americans are 60 percent more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites. The Coeur D'Alene tribe, whose headquarters is in northern Idaho, is trying to combat the problem by incorporating culture into fitness programs.

The tribe has created an exercise routine — called"Powwow Sweat" — based on traditional dancing. The program features a series of workout videos that break down six traditional dances into step-by-step exercise routines.

"Drop the pringles and let's jingle," commands Shedaezha Hodge, as she demonstrates the steps that make up the women's "Jingle Dress" dance.

High steps, box steps, cross steps and kicks combine into a routine that would give any Zumba class a run for its money.

"Sweating yet?" Hodge asks, as she encourages the dancers to go faster and kick higher.

All the dances in the exercise program are typical at powwows, including the "Men's Fancy Dance," — which features four basic steps and a hip move. The hip move involves lifting your knee up, then circling it out to the side, all the while bouncing to the drum beat.

"I lost 13 1/2 pounds," says Ryan Ortivez, who attends the weekly "Powwow Sweat" classes at the Coeur D'Alene Wellness Center, in Plummer, Idaho.

"I'm aiming to lose 40 more pounds by the end of the year," he adds.

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

There are some real health challenges in this community, says Terry O'Toole, senior health advisor with the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has given the Coeur D'Alene tribe $2 million to develop "Powwow Sweat." It also supports a community garden on the reservation and a project that stocks the gas station market with healthy food options.

"Combating obesity requires more than just one initiative or one program," O'Toole says. "It takes a variety of what we call 'population-based strategies.' "

The goal is to achieve community-wide results, O'Toole says.

That isn't going to be easy, says LoVina Louie, director of the tribe's wellness center. Mainstream fitness and nutrition programs don't meet the needs of tribal members, she says.

"What they lack is spirituality," says Louie. "Most programming is only physical, or it's only nutrition. It's in these compartments — whereas we're more holistic," Louie says. "We want to incorporate the mind, body and spirit into what we do."

"Powwow Sweat" is a good example of that — using traditional dance for a high-intensity workout.

"It's almost like jumping rope for 25 minutes straight," Louie says, as she keeps everyone moving through dance steps at one of the weekly exercise classes. "If you don't do it regularly, your calves will hurt, like you're just out of breath, because you're just constantly bouncing."

It's this combination of tradition and exercise that keeps tribal member Ryan Ortivez and his neighbors coming to class each week, to watch the videos 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," says Ortivez.

"I'm in love with my community, first and foremost," he says. "My people. I love to see my community get involved and get active and be healthy."

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

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.
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