The Medicine of Community: Native Strong Men Project

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Native Drum Circle at a pow wow

Celina Mahinalani Garza joins host Andrew Williams to talk about two organizations that she's involved with at the forefront of the health equity movement. Native Lifeway and the Native Strong Men project are dedicated to Native models of health and harmony, and help participants feel seen, heard and closer to self and community.

Growing up sometimes I felt lost because I didn't know who I was.

Celina Mahinalani

0:00:12 Andrew Williams
Welcome to Let's Talk Recovery Equity. A series of conversations about how we can reach and help more people find freedom from addiction. The series offers a space to reflect on some of the complexities of substance use disorder. And to consider new pathways toward hope, recovery, and healing. My name is Andrew Williams. And I serve as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And I am the host of our series. Today, I am thrilled and honored to speak with our special guest, Celina Mahinalani Garza. Celina is Kanaka Maui Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, and Mexican Native American. Currently, she is the Coordinator and Facilitator of the Native Strong Men Project. A health and wellness program held a hundred percent online that launched in 2020, recruiting 180 Native men from across the country. To actively participate via Zoom classes and groups. Celina is also the Founder of Native Lifeway. She specializes in creating meaningful connections as an indigenous advocate and practitioner of wellness. Mind, body, and spirit. Celina's background includes mind-body transformational psychology and traditional ecological knowledge. She is an energetic motivational facilitator who integrates cultural traditions, spirituality, holistic modalities, and movement as medicine. And positivity to motivate people from the inside out. [turns to screen] Thank you, Celina, for joining us today for this very important discussion.

0:01:45 Celina Mahinalani
Thanks for having me! Good-morning everyone! Good to see you.

0:01:56 Andrew Williams
Well again, thank you Celina for joining us. Before we move into a number of other questions, I'd like to ask you to just introduce yourself to our audience. To tell us a little bit about yourself, the community you grew up in, and what fuels your passion for the work that you do in Native communities and beyond.

0:02:13 Celina Mahinalani
Absolutely. [gives greeting in Hawaiian] My name is Celina Nahamalani Garza. Thank you for pronouncing my name in a good way. [Andrew nods, smiles] That was really refreshing. I come and do a lot of different presentations and people chop that right up. So, thank you so much! My name translates to “goddess of the heavens and the moon.” And my family, my mom's side of the family, comes from the island of Maui. And my grandfather, her father, was a master saddle maker from up country in Makawa. And my grandmother was actually a dancer and a speaker and just so many other awesome things. And she was from Lahyna. And then my step-up dad that raised us, he's from Big Island from Kona's Island. He's Filipino and Hawaiian. On my biological father's side of the family, they're Mexican American by way of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and into El Paso and Edinburg, Texas. And so, we do have some roots over there on the side where the East Lethapwui people are, the Pueblos and so just very rich in culture and ethnic background. We are dancers by trade. I speak some of our language. I'm a Hula dancer and my mother is also a historian. And a genealogist. And so, for the last eleven years, I've been working through Indian country. And it started with my mom and my step-up dad.

0:03:53 Andrew Williams
Yes. Well, Celina thank you for such a lovely, thick description. Of some of the cultural traditions of your family and giving us a sense for how those are manifest currently in your life and your work. But again, really do appreciate learning more about the diverse sort of cultural strands and groundings that inform who you are. Well as I said in my Intro, you've been working quite intensively and extensively with the Strong Men Project. I'm wondering if you could describe for us the impetus, the motivation, behind the launch of this program. And also if you could describe for us kind of the texture, the contours of the sort of healing space that has been created by this online initiative.

0:04:37 Celina Mahinalani
Yeah, absolutely. Before I do that, I do want to acknowledge, you know, the land that I'm speaking from. You know, it's important to me that we do that. So that we, you know, continue this conversation in a really good way. So, I'm just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. And so, the Pee-Posh Maricopa Akmachtham people are here. Very present in this land. And this is their land. So I just wanna acknowledge them and thank them for the opportunity to serve our Native people in a good way from here and Phoenix, Arizona. So, the Strong Men study I mean the Strong Men's Project has been amazing! When I talk about it, when I hear people talk about it, when I see people wear the T-shirts, the brand logo, it's so powerful. You know launched in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. It was originally launched to be in person. And it started in Minnesota. And it went well. And I believe that they had about 35, 40 people that participated. And then the pandemic happened. And so, they had to rewrite the project. And this was with the partnership of Washington State University. And so they rewrote it and they came to us here in Phoenix with the Strong Heart study where I'm the tribal liaison and study coordinator. And they asked do you think that you can recruit a hundred Native men to participate? And we said, 'Sure! Yeah!' [smiles big] And then we did that and then they said, 'Do you think you can get 50 more?' I said, 'Yeah! Sure!' [laughs] 'I'm the only woman but let's see what happens!'

0:06:29 Celina Mahinalani
And then it was really awesome. we had some deadlines and we actually recruited over 200. But 180 fit the criteria. So we do have a Facebook page that you can follow. I think the passion behind it was that Native men are medicine. And for a long time, our Native men have been left out of the equation per se. There are men ceremonies and gatherings, you know, hunting and gathering that happens throughout the country and in the reservations. But here for urban Natives, men, there is no sacred space. And if you can think about how you felt and how we felt during the pandemic, isolated, you know, we couldn't go to maybe our regular football gatherings, to go visit your friends down the street. Because of the fear of this virus. And then thinking about Native people in general, in the Navajo nation, we know that more people died within the first six months of the pandemic. Than anywhere else in the country. And we never heard about that. We heard about Baltimore, we heard about New York, we heard about Washington D.C., we heard about China of course. But the Native people, you know, it was there. But it wasn't spoke enough about until after that first year. Of the numbers. And so, Native men needed a space where they could come. And a lot of 'em didn't know how to use Zoom. So it was a learning lesson for all of us. And so, there was a criteria. That the men could not be diabetic. And so they had to fit the criteria of that. And their BMI had to be over 26. And we sent them a health package in the mail. And then I met them just like this and walked them through all of the different health assessments. And then weekly, they met through Zoom and I got one of my good brother friends, Walen Pahona, to facilitate these men's groups. Because how awkward would it be to have a bunch of men listen to me weekly. To say 'this is what you should do. This is what we should say.' Or carry out this curriculum, right? So, it was really beautiful to have a man lead this project. And for me to just check back up with people and say, 'Hey, are you coming?!' And send text messages, reminders, and just gentle hugs. Through the phone or through Zoom just like this.

0:09:08 Celina Mahinalani
So, the passion behind it was in fact that Native people as a whole needed a safe, sacred, confidential space where they could share their hearts, listen, and learn, and receive. But also see people on the other side of the camera like we are today. That looked like them, sounded like them, and that wasn't a woman telling them what was wrong with them. But instead, fueling them from the inside out and reminding them what was right with them. So really, really inspiring. And so it's still—we're meeting twice a week for workouts. On Tuesdays it's a functional cardio workout that they do through Zoom. And then on Thursdays, yoga! [chuckles, smiles big] So that's a whole other—it's amazing to see Native men doing yoga together. [nods]

0:10:02 Andrew Williams
Oh Celina there's just so much I appreciate about your response. From this really rich origin story of the Strong Men Project, to you really bringing to life kind of the contour and the texture of what the men are experiencing as they come together in community. But, you know, I also wanna let you know that I recognize and really appreciate your land acknowledgement to kick your response off. This is something that we're very kind of working on intentionally within our foundation. To work harder to make sure that our websites and major public events that we are acknowledging that we are working on Native land. And that we owe so much, right, to the historical stewardship of the Native people. Whose land that we are on today and here in Minnesota, we stand on Dakota and Ojibwe land and appreciate your prompt for us to recognize that and as we try to do better as a Foundation as well.

0:11:01 Celina Mahinalani
Awesome. [smiles, nods]

0:11:01 Andrew Williams
And lastly, I appreciate the ways in which you broke the silence, shattered the silence, right, around the really devastating disparate impact of COVID-19 on the Navajo nation. I appreciate you using this space to help deepen our understanding of the invisibility, right, of the impact of COVID and the distribution of sadness within those communities.

0:11:25 Celina Mahinalani

0:11:27 Andrew Williams
But I think you know what I pull out of your story, right, is not just the sadness, the tragedy, right, but the tremendous—the strength, the resilience, the cultural vibrancy of Native populations. And I know from looking at your biographical materials that you take great pride in being a Native Hawaiian. And you've done some work there as well. But now you're in Phoenix. So I'm wondering if you might reflect on what you have perceived to be what you understand to be some of the more significant similarities or differences. Between Native Hawaiian communities and tribal nations in the mainland, in relationship specifically to issues of health equity, well-being, and healing.

0:12:07 Celina Mahinalani
[nods] That's a full meat and potatoes question and topic. Absolutely. [Andrew chuckles] But, here's three things that we can't deny, and I think that are very similar in our communities. And I think across the land, people of color in general, is that when we hear music or the beat of the drum, we stop and look. Maybe it triggers a memory. Food. We smell food cooking, right, all of a sudden you're hungry. [chuckles] And you just ate not too long ago. And prayer. And so, you know, just speaking from the heart. I think that with people of color in general, those three things we can't deny. And also, our elders. You know, there's such a respect. And a love for our elders. We call 'em our treasures. And, you know, being Hawaiian, we grew up in a small town where we were Mexican. You know? And we were Mexican. But it was kind of left field or very awkward or odd to a lot of people that we didn't speak Spanish. Our father's side of the family tried to speak to us in Spanish and here we were speaking English. At a very young age, we knew that we were Hawaiian and learned about why it was important that we were Hawaiian. Learned about some of the history behind that as well. And so, you know, thinking we're different, it was a little strange for me and for our family as well because were we Mexican, were we Hawaiian, and then all of the people that we had around us didn't know who we were. And I always got a lot of questions growing up to say, 'What are you?' [chuckles, grins]

0:14:09 Andrew Williams
Yes. Me too. [nods, grins]

0:14:10 Celina Mahinalani
I always had to pull 'em back and say, 'A girl!' [chuckles] But I think in our community, thinking about the Hawaiian people, on an island, and then, you know, if I could just go back and say during the pandemic because that's what we've been faced with recently, on an island with not as many resources. We'll just take the island of Kawaii. I have some really good friends and family that live there. There's only nine or ten ICU beds. And as we know, from the pandemic, a lot of people were forced to go into ICU. Because either there were no answers at the very beginning on how to treat them or how to take care of them. And so, they were there! And then, were thinking about being in a rural community and being way out on the Navajo nation. Because we're talking about them. Or being out in Hopi land up north, just past Flagstaff. There's no hospital there! And if there is, maybe we're 30 minutes away. And so, if we're thinking about resources and healthcare, the health disparities that affect all of us. Diabetes, going to the doctor for a medical check, you know, thinking about cancer treatments, you know. You're doing that with your family at home because you either can't afford to go back in and out of town. Or, you have to move to the city. So, you're now removed from the land that you know and the place that you know. And then, having to move into Phoenix. And I think that the same thing happened with the Hawaiian people too during the pandemic but also previously. I know of friends who suffered with cancer or suffered with skin issues. Their little babies having to go, you know, to a stomach specialist and having to fly to the doctor, right, to the next island, to Awahu.

0:16:16 Celina Mahinalani
So, as far as the similarities in that way, we have to kind of be resourceful in our thinking. And very flexible too as a family and as a people. That we have to go seek out the things that we need and sometimes the miles between those things make it very inconvenient. Stressful. Financially burdening. And but then also, the really beautiful things of our people. The history, the knowledge, the wisdom, the prayers, the songs. The regalia. The ceremony. We're very similar in that way because the oral history. Before Zoom, before email. [smiles] Before writing and language. Talking story. And being together is how we shared those things. But, very prominent, very special, very respected, on both sides. So it is really my honor to walk as kind of the middle-way woman in both of these communities. With the Native people that I work with in the communities. There's so much love and respect for me as a Hawaiian woman. And it's very mutual. I love and respect all of the rich culture and traditions and heritage of the Native people. And it's been amazing to travel throughout Indian country and have that cultural exchange, have the talk story. Going to ceremony and being invited with open arms. And so, it's not strange and awkward anymore. I feel very in a place. Now I feel like I'm just becoming who I was supposed to be. And growing up sometimes I felt lost because I didn't know who I was. And so it's really—it's really neat to see this transition and what's happening in our communities. But more so for myself. And I know for my own healing journey, when I heal myself, I also heal our people. [nods]

0:18:31 Andrew Williams
Mmm. Well Celina, again there's so much I appreciate about your answer. You know, especially love this concept you said the middle way, the 'middle-way woman,' yeah I just love that concept. [Celina nods, smiles] And that's one I wanna continue to reflect on as well. And Celina, my background and training as a cultural anthropologist and you know at the heart of anthropology is this belief that there's some power and value in comparative analysis. Comparing one culture with another. And in your response, this is so illuminating. And really appreciate the ways in which you know you were able to illuminate both similarities and differences across Native communities. As you've learned about this, you know, through your solidarity work. And I think what you do a beautiful job of is to highlight some of the consistent historical and contemporary barriers to access, to greater well-being, health, and healing. But at the same time, you importantly remind us, right, of the power of culture. The power of our elders. The power of our ancestors. Of the drum and prayer, right, as a resource for strength and resilience and healing. Across diverse Native American communities. [Celina nods] You know, on that note I know among the solidarity work that you've been doing is your founding of Native Lifeways. I'm wondering if you could kind of share how Native Lifeways expressing your vision of how to go about supporting wellness and healing in Native communities and beyond. 

0:20:08 Celina Mahinalani
So, Native Lifeway came to be as a group of friends. [grins] And as independent consultant. We needed a place and I needed a place to say who I am. And I have a Hanai brother from the Navajo nation. Hanai in the Hawaiian language means “to bring in or to adopt or to make yours.” And I heard that back in the day that people with Hanai are child, and bring your child back to you, you know, after whoever took the child, to teach them something that you wouldn't be able to teach them. So for example, you would be able to hanai a child and teach them all the beautiful things that you know. And so my step-up dad did that with my Navajo brother. And I asked him one day I said I would love—I wanna start an organization, a business, you know, something to say who I am. And who a reflection of my family. And what it is that we do. Who you are, who my, you know, good brother friend is, who my sister is, you know, what it is that we do. Without hesitation my brother said it's Native Lifeway. And it was so—I mean usually you have a brainstorm meeting about this, you bring in professionals, but it was so beautiful because my brother is so prayerful. And I think it just came because we were in Hawaii. And I sit on an Intertribal Council Board for Intertribal Pow Wow that happens on the island of Kawaii.

0:21:51 Celina Mahinalani
And so, with Native Lifeway, thinking how people can connect with us and what it is that they're looking for, that's what brought the idea, the intention, but also, the medicine. Who we are and what it is that we're perpetuating. Because it's not just mine and it's not just my brother's. It's also my mother, it's also the legacy that my mom and my dad, biological father, you know, all of our relations who already left this earth, our elders, the Kuliana, which is the responsibility of who I am as a Native woman. And what I want to share and perpetuate. Health, healing, and happiness, always. So, we needed a place to have this. Just kind of like—I'm trying to think—just to explain who we are. And what we do. So, Native Lifeway, you know, it is the way that we live. It is the medicine in which we live. And it's a vibrant solidarity, I like that word that you used, advocacy, and it's also the light. The baby light that's all inside of us. And so, it's interesting because that name wasn't taken, nobody was using it, and so I feel like it was supposed to be perfectly and perfect. [smiles big] So, I hope that answers part of it 'cause I think I kinda got lost in my answer. [laughs]

0:23:40 Andrew Williams
No, not at all, Celina. You provided with another very rich and insightful answer. And I really do appreciate the ways in which you've helped us to more fully understand the mission of Lifeways and the ways in which your healing work there in solidarity with others is really informed and fueled by your own diverse lived experiences and the diverse kind of rich connectedness you have with other Native people. And I just love how you all are envisioning, right, and helping complicate our understanding of healing and who are healers, right?

0:24:14 Celina Mahinalani
Mmm-hmm. [nods]

0:24:15 Andrew Williams
From our earlier conversation we talked about the ways in which food is medicine.

0:24:18 Celina Mahinalani
Mmm. [closes eyes, nods slowly]

0:24:19 Andrew Williams
 And you know you talked about the drum and the healing force and power of the drum. And I think here you also are describing the ways in which, you know, people, right, are medicine as well—

0:24:30 Celina Mahinalani
Yes. Absolutely. Mmm-hmm.

0:24:30 Andrew Williams
--And that community is medicine and I really appreciate beginning to kind of more fully understand all the different kind of healing modalities that are represented in the work you do with Native Lifeways. I can't believe that we're almost out of time already—

0:24:46 Celina Mahinalani
[laughs, shakes head] I know!

0:24:46 Andrew Williams
--And that I only have time for one question. Certainly we're gonna need to do a Part Two.

0:24:51 Celina Mahinalani

0:24:52 Andrew Williams
If the powers that be will allow us to do so. But importantly, we like to end all of these conversations, you know, in a really kind of personal way and to share our care for communities. And if you could, if you could share anything with someone in a Native community who's struggling right now or knows someone or cares about someone who's really struggling around substance use or other kind of well-being issues, what would you say to them?

0:25:20 Celina Mahinalani
Mmm. I think it's the message you know you're talking about medicine and I have perpetuated that. A long time ago. Thinking about you being the medicine, you know, and hosting this opportunity to share. You know, who knows who we'll meet, and who we'll reach, right? And Lisa being the person that brought us together. [smiles] And thinking about Cecelia, also meeting her and having her connect us. Those are all medicine. And so, the message that I consistently perpetuate and share in the communities that I work with and even through Zoom is that you are the medicine, you know, you bring your medicine and every day you choose which medicine you're going to be, you know? And I've been in so many different communities where the phone will ring and ring and ring and ring and ring, I'm looking around and all these people are walking around and no one's answering the phone and paying attention. And I'm thinking, I'm in the Behavioral Health building about to present to all these people. Someone on the other line that's calling may need some medicine. What kind of medicine are you gonna bring when you answer that phone?

0:26:37 Celina Mahinalani
And then also kinda just being the person to observe. And always doing my best as a person in how I show up. My smile being my medicine, right, my words, my voice, my eyes, my hands, my knowledge, that all of us need to bring the better medicine of listening. And to just being open, you know, to being compassionate, to being loving, and getting back to all of the simple things that Grandma used to tell you, right, that we've been hearing, you know, thinking about the Golden Rule. That's universal, right, treat people the way you want to be treated. But I also say be the light and be the reflection that you want to be reflected back to your family. It's so, so simple. And sometimes I have to talk to myself, right? Before you get ready for work and say okay, what do you need today? How do you wanna show up today? Because there's days where this isn't me. There's days where I need a day off. When I've worked with 300 people. And those are important days, too. Rest is medicine. So if you think about yourself as a medicine person, right, and deciding which medicine you wanna bring for the day, if you don't feel well, right, taking back, taking that day off. Listening. You might not have all of the answers. But also being resourceful. Looking into the communities that you work with. You know, those are all simple things and when I think about it I think this is so dumb, right? We all know these things. And we can all be better versions of our self. So, if you can keep working on you, imagine what you can do with all of the people that you meet. Every day. And to conserve your energy to be responsive instead of reactive. Right? 'Cause we've had that throughout all of our lives, people upset on the highway, mad at us 'cause we're drinking too slow, because we wanna make sure, you know, there's no children playing in the street. But just being what you want to see in the world. And showing up to be someone's medicine. And if you don't like people, don't work with people! Plain and simple. Go fix a computer. You know? [laughs] And—and these are again, simple, simple things. Is that sometimes we need to get back to our own healing. So that we can be healing to other people that we work with.

0:29:31 Celina Mahinalani
And, you know, last but not least, stop taking things personally. And I think that in our communities, we can learn so many and so much more things by getting back to the simplicity of what our ancestors, you know, started for us. To love each other, to take care of each other, you know, to be the natural nurturers. To clothe, to feed, to sing, to pray, to keep your own house clean. So that here can be clean. [points to head] The longest journey is from here to here. [points from head to heart] Here to here. Here to here. So when your mind is strong, the heart will follow. And when the heart is strong, the mind will follow. And when your mind is strong, your body will follow. Some people get that upside down and backwards. And work on the body and then the mind's weak and then they're wondering why they're not healthier, why they feel the way that they feel. So, I would say that, you know, love yourself so that you can love the people around you even more. Because there's so much hurt. So much pain. So much trauma. So much illness in the world. But if you can just be a better version of yourself, and work on your own healing and your own wellness, your own movement, then the world can be a better place.

0:30:52 Andrew Williams
Celina, oh, thank you so much for that very inspiring and healing response. And I just more generally wanna thank you Celina for sharing your wisdom, your experience and tremendous insights, with us. I know for me personally, and I imagine for all of our viewers, this has been a very soul-growing and illuminating experience. I mean you have offered all of us some really, really powerful medicine today.

0:31:19 Celina Mahinalani
Thank you.

0:31:19 Andrew Williams
And I'm grateful for that as well as your ongoing advocacy and solidarity work. And the life-changing healing work you do each day. So again, Celina, thank you for joining us today.

0:31:31 Celina Mahinalani
Mmm. Thank you! [gestures thanks with hands]

0:31:34 Andrew Williams
[turns to camera] And to all of you listening or watching today, I wanna express my gratitude for you taking the time to join us for this important conversation. Please let your friends and colleagues know about these conversations and come back often to catch more episodes of Let's Talk Recovery Equity. Together, we can build a healthier, happier, and more equitable tomorrow.

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