They talk about treaty rights, tribal recognition and Bureau of Indian Affairs politics.
They crack jokes, discuss family, and talk about sweat-lodge gatherings.
Of course, they’re already sweating by the time they cover all this conversational ground. American Indians, they’re enrolled in a federal exercise program at Club Sierra Sports & Fitness in Grass Valley.
“That was my focus – having this be more than a workout,” said Lloyd Powell.
But the workout is key, said Powell, a San Juan Ridge resident and American Indian.
Indians are hit hard by diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, and exercise can be a solution to all those problems.
Three days a week, up to 15 Indians – ages 13 to 80 – gather at the club for a continuous series of arm and leg exercises while club fitness trainer Tony Mendoza (himself part Indian) periodically checks their heart rates. Over the stereo comes a steady rhythm of drums, flutes and chants.
“A lot of them have made tremendous progress,” said Mendoza, whose grandfather was a Yaqui Indian.
Clara DeLuca, a Tsi-Akim Maidu from Nevada City, has lost 35 pounds and feels more energetic from exercise and smarter eating. Her uncle, Don Ryberg of Grass Valley, has lost 13 pounds.
Obesity, Ryberg said, is a part of the negative stereotype of Indians – along with alcoholism.
“We have to get fit and try to change that image a little bit,” he said.
There are 141 Maidus in California, about a third of whom live in Nevada County, DeLuca said, but the exercise program isn’t limited to that tribe.
Powell, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, helped start the program last winter through the Chapa-De Indian Health Program, which has a Grass Valley office.
The program was already in Auburn, but the hours and driving distance kept many Nevada County Indians from joining.
Through Chapa-De, the federal government issues 90-day grants for exercise programs, and the grants continue as long as there are enough participants.
They undergo a physical examination and blood tests before starting the program, and they get regular checkups. The results have been good, said Dr. Keith Seidel of the clinic.
“It’s in a group setting to get motivated, and when you’re in a group setting, you do better anyway,” he said.
The health problems are not unique to Indians, Seidel said, but the population has shown a “genetic prevalence” associated with many health problems, as have Alaskans, American Samoans and Hispanics.
There are a lot of theories on why this happens, Seidel said. A predominant one is that Indians’ genes weren’t prepared for the high-calorie diet of white settlers. That brought on obesity, and obesity can trigger such things as type II diabetes.
Seidel has been with Chapa-De for two years and enjoys his work.
“The interesting thing is working with an underserved population that has a unique culture,” he said. “I think it’s important for us at our clinic to respect what other people do and feel about health and healing.”
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