Perspectives on Wellness: Journeys on the Red Road

By Weaver, Hilary N. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on Wellness: Journeys on the Red Road


Weaver, Hilary N., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Wellness is a topic currently receiving considerable attention in Native American communities and among service providers who work with indigenous people. Through many professional programs and grassroots efforts strides have been made in shifting from a deficit focus to one of resilience and strength. However, substantially less has been written from a strengths or wellness perspective. Much of the positive work that has been conducted for years has never been reported in the literature and goes unnoticed by all but those directly involved. The literature on Native Americans includes primarily discussions of social and health problems including poverty, violence and alcoholism. This volume reports the efforts of professionals and Native American communities to restore balance and wellness in indigenous nations, thus, giving readers an opportunity to learn about Native issues from a perspective not often reflected in the literature, that of resilience. Even issues commonly thought of as only approachable from a deficit perspective such as suicide and gambling can have wellness dimensions, as explored by the authors of the articles contained here. We invite the reader to consider the topics in this volume from a fresh angle.

In the dominant society, wellness is often associated with prevention of illness or disease. This Westernized perspective based on a medical model of health is a more narrow conceptualization of wellness than that embraced by First Nations communities. The idea of wellness as discussed in this volume is a holistic concept that encompasses all aspects of individuals and communities including physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. Balance among these different dimensions promotes both prevention and healing.

The path to wellness in indigenous communities is often referred to as the Red Road; a journey and way to well-being that First Nations people must travel in order to be truly well and healthy human beings. The Lakota traditionally embrace the Red Road, a holistic philosophy that integrates health-related phenomena in an inclusive, circular path of living and dying (Kavanaugh, Absalom, Beil, & Schliessmann, 1999). Likewise, the philosophy of the Red Road is embraced by many indigenous people from all nations as the proper way to live according to the traditional instructions received by Native people. For many, it is seen as the only way that Native people will continue to exist as nations, communities, and human beings, distinct from other surrounding cultures. The concept of the Red Road is so prominent in contemporary indigenous thought that it has been the subject of books, articles, conferences, workshops, and compact disks. Likewise, the resurgence of commitment to wellness across Indian country can be seen in the inception of magazines such as Wellbriety and Well Nations.

Defining Wellness and Balance

Balance, wholeness, integrity: these are just some of the terms associated with wellness in First Nations/Native American communities. Because the concept of wellness is multifaceted and complex it is difficult to define. On the other hand, wellness is something that is simple, natural, and when understood, needs no words to define it.

Although there is tremendous diversity among the indigenous peoples of North America, most have a concept of balance as integral to well-being. Wellness consists of a balance and symmetry among different parts of a whole. The Medicine Wheel, a concept central to the cultures of many Native Nations, illustrates the importance of balance for wellness. While the Medicine Wheel has many different levels of meaning, its basic elements are a circle divided into quadrants. The quadrants are usually depicted in red, black, yellow, and white. There are many different layers of symbology associated with the different parts of the wheel. For example, the quadrants are associated with different spirit beings, the four directions (North, East, South, and West), different stages of life, different races of people, different aspects within individuals, and different roles that people play within their communities.

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