Tribal Health

Each year, the Fellowship crew embarks on a multi-day meeting to learn about an area of public health more deeply. This year's quest took the group to Wisconsin's North Woods to learn about tribal health. We piled into vans and headed north to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council Epidemiology Center. Fellow Marisa Stanley spent Summer 2010 working with the Epi Center and, with the Center staff, graciously gave the Fellows a look into the world of tribal health. 

After a restful night spent in cabins at the Trout Lake Research Center, we arrived at the Epi Center and received a crash course in Indian Health from Center Director Kristin Hill. We learned about the unique situation of tribal sovereign status, the Federal Government's Trust Responsibility to provide health care to native people, the impact of historical trauma on health, and that there are currently 564 federally recognized tribes nationwide. 

Next, we heard from the Center's Program Director, Isaiah Brokenleg, who provided a straightforward "Working with Native Americans 101." Isaiah's personal stories and experiences working as a Native American public health professional were incredibly powerful and informative.

An amazingly authentic lunch followed the morning's presentations. Center administrator Stacy Stone presented the salivating group with fresh walleye speared by her husband and son, freshly hunted venison, wild rice, berries, frybread, and salad. Basically the most delicious meal ever.

The day's excitement escalated with the afternoon's "Johnnie Cakes Experience," which involved native drumming, dance and singing while learning about the meaning of certain sounds, voices, and messages. A supremely talented singing and drumming duo, Sonny Smart and Keith, got the group moving and grooving.

Next up: a tour of the reservation that included a stop at a cemetery (where we saw mini longhouses next to graves, in which the body's spirit lives), pow wow grounds, and many lakes. 

The educational portion of the day concluded with the viewing of two emotionally exhausting, but critically important documentaries: "Lighting of the Seventh Fire" (about the spearfishing controversy in Northern Wisconsin) and "The Canary Effect" (about the effect of U.S. policies on tribes). The group reflected and vowed to share these films and knowledge with others. 

The next day, the group heard about the uneasy history of boarding schools at a restored Lac du Flambeau boarding school. The historian shared tales of separated families, lost culture, and extremely poor health outcomes as a result of the school policies. 

Next, we toured the beautiful new Pete Christensen Health Center, which provides health care to the region's tribal members. Then we toured the Lac du Flambeau Museum, which tied together all the topics we'd learned about. Lastly, we stopped at the casino for a brunch lunch and goodbye session with our incredible hosts. 

What a unique experience--how lucky are we to have been given this intimate look into a culture and its tumultuous yet resilient history in the context of health? Very.