Reflections on Native American Heritage Month from the Menominee Reservation

Lauren Lamers, MPH

Population Health Service Fellow

Menominee Tribal Clinic
Keshena, Wisconsin

Shawano-Menominee Counties Health Department
Shawano, Wisconsin

On 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. 

As 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.”[1]  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.  Through 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.”[2]  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 agencies
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 their communities.    

[1] The White House. Office of the Press Secretary.  Presidential Proclamation – National Native American Heritage Month, 2013.  Available online at
[2] 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.