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“You’re gonna need us.”
Sherman Alexie
Native American author and poet

Being a white man, I’m not really allowed to talk about the Red Road. If I was Native American I could have my say, but as a “plastic shaman” of dubious qualification, it would be impolite for me to speak of it. But if you were to look it up, you’d learn that the Red Road is a way of life marked by respect for the earth, elders and community. It tells a story of continuity– between generations, between humans and the natural world and between people. It sounds like a powerful path but like I said, I’m not allowed to talk about it.

What I can do is talk about the White Road. This is something I happen to know a good deal about because I grew up on this path. And besides, everyone knows about the White Road anyway. It’s right out there in public view. It’s on our TVs and our phones, in our schools and all over our commerce. Modern culture is blazingly, unabashedly white, all the way down. This includes, quite naturally, most of our health and fitness practices.

The White Road has deep historical roots, tightly bound to colonialism beginning in the 16th century. Our entire hemisphere was tyrannized by white culture, white ideas and white government. Native cultures, lands and peoples were either destroyed or marginalized. Of course, powerful tribes have always sought to dominate the weak, but the White Road seems unique in its systematic quest for power and its drive to dominate the natural world. We seek no harmony, only advantage. Rather than adapting ourselves to the world, we adapt the world to fit our desires. Relentlessly and without regard to larger consequences, we break the natural and human world into fragments, then manipulate what’s left. The original whole is forgotten or declared irrelevant.

The anarchist philosopher Ivan Illich once made a distinction between “environment as commons” and “environment as resource.” When you’re on the Red Road, the natural world is a shared commons, something to be experienced by all creatures. In contrast, those on the White Road see the natural world as a mere repository of valuable commodities to be extracted, refined and exploited. Timber, fish, oil, gas, minerals, water: these are there for the taking, for our welfare and our enjoyment. It’s simply a question of economics; if it pays, it plays.

Unfortunately, our whiteness has profoundly negative consequences for human health. By promoting economics, competition, autonomy and separation, the White Road isolates us from the natural world and one another. It keeps us apart from that which sustains us. Travel the White Road long enough and you’ll begin to forget what keeps you alive. You’ll think your health and survival depend on protein bars and supplements. You’ll develop amnesia about the earth and the importance of the people around you.

To be clear, the problem lies, not with the color of white people themselves, but in the white ideas that define our culture:

  • White space: Rectilinear grids and lines forced upon the land with minimal regard to the actual characteristics of terrain.
  • White time: Rigid, precise intervals of experience as measured by mechanical devices.
  • White food: Highly refined substances, extracted and transported over long distances, packaged and delivered almost instantly.
  • White exercise: Monotonous, artificial sets and reps performed on machines for prescribed intervals.
  • White communication: Electronic fragments of information substituting for authentic conversation.
  • White medicine: Prescriptions and treatments based on the idea that the body is nothing more than a neuro-chemical machine in need of tweaks and repairs.

And of course, our focus on athletic elitism is pure white. Most native people find our obsession with individual glory to be abhorrent. According to legend, the original Lakota language had no words for “me” or “I.” The focus was on group welfare in a shared predicament, a natural orientation for anyone trying to survive the dangers of the Paleolithic era. In contrast, modern health and fitness marketing is aimed almost exclusively at individual health and athletic performance. It’s all about building a bigger, better me or you. Rarely do we speak of the land or our ancestors. Rarely do we talk of continuity between generations, habitat or people.

Fortunately, our movement is still young and there is time to get it right. But one thing is obvious: We need more red in our movement, more dirt in our ideas and more Africa in our blood. If we would just spend a little more time listening to the wisdom of our ancestors and a little less time mining the world for every last advantage, it would all go better for everyone.