Lauren Lamers, MPH
Counties Health Department
October 31, President Obama declared November 2013 to be National Native American
Heritage Month - a time to celebrate Native American culture and recognize
the rich contributions Native Americans have made to the United States. Prior to beginning the fellowship, I would
likely have given this month little more than cursory notice. Since beginning
my placement with the Menominee Indian
Tribe of Wisconsin, however, Native American heritage has taken on a whole
new meaning for me.
the president acknowledged, along with celebrating the culture and traditions
we might typically associate with Native American heritage, “we must not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured - a
history of violence, marginalization, broken promises, and upended justice.” Unquestionably, coming to understand some of
the more painful events in the history of the Menominee Tribe has been one of
the most personally challenging learning experiences of my fellowship so far.
In the early 1800s, the Menominee Tribe resided on
a land base of approximately 10 million acres in what is now Wisconsin,
Michigan, and Illinois.
a series of treaties in the nineteenth century, the tribe’s lands were reduced
to the 235,000 acres of its present-day reservation. Menominee children were separated from their
parents and sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their
language or practice traditional elements of their culture. In the 1950s the Menominee Termination Act
removed federal recognition of the Menominee as a sovereign American Indian tribe. In addition to losing their tribal status,
the Menominee suffered severe economic hardships and lost portions of their
land and many of the healthcare and educational services the government
provides to federally recognized tribes.
Although the Menominee fought for and eventually won back federal
recognition in 1973, the effects of termination were devastating.
Perhaps the most
disconcerting part about this history, however, is that the Menominee, like
American Indian and other historically marginalized communities around the country, are
still struggling with the impact of the injustices they experienced. This phenomenon is known as historical
trauma, which has been defined as the “cumulative emotional and psychological
wounding across generations, including the lifespan, which emanates from
massive group trauma.” In other words, experiences like forced
relocation, assimilation, and termination so profoundly disrupted the lives of American
Indian people and caused such emotional and psychological damage that their
effects still plague American Indian communities.
This historical trauma
manifests itself in clear and tangible ways among the Menominee Tribe today. Menominee
County is the poorest county in Wisconsin and one of the poorest in the United States. Rates of obesity, diabetes, teen pregnancy,
and substance abuse are high, and according to the County Health Rankings, the
county ranks last for health outcomes in Wisconsin.
Yet when I think about
American Indian heritage and my experiences on the Menominee Reservation so
far, one theme resonates more powerfully for me than past injustices or
historical trauma: resilience. The Menominee Nation has shown incredible
determination, innovation, and passion for improving lives in their community. They have fought to preserve their language
and culture, and several programs currently work to pass traditional teachings
and practices to Menominee youth. They
have carefully protected their natural resources and have been nationally
recognized for their sustainable forestry management. They have also made great strides toward
improving the health of their community.
Just a few of their recent efforts to improve community health include:
Convening a community engagement workgroup that brings stakeholders
together from numerous sectors of the Tribe and county to address youth
obesity, teen pregnancy, and school readiness
Providing school-based preventive dental services to Head Start,
elementary, and middle school children
Planting a community orchard
Expanding opportunities for physical activity in the community and implementing
healthier nutrition guidelines in schools
Holding Bridges out of Poverty trainings to help health and social
service professionals better understand how to work with clients struggling
with intergenerational poverty
Identifying innovative ways to address adverse childhood experiences and
implement trauma-informed care in local health, education, and social service
While the social,
economic, and health challenges in Menominee are great, the dedication and
passion of local leaders and community members to address these challenges is
truly awe-inspiring. I am humbled and privileged to have the opportunity to
work in this community.
So this November as the
nation recognizes Native American heritage, I would challenge us all not only
to learn more about traditional American Indian culture or the historical injustices
American Indians have faced, but to truly celebrate the legacy of strength and resilience
that enables tribes like the Menominee to continue striving to improve lives in
 Brave Heart, M.Y.H., Chase, J., Elkins, J.,
Altschul, D.B. 2011. Historical trauma among indigenous peoples of
the Americas: Concepts, research, and clinical
considerations. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 43 (4): 282-90.