Learning Community Reflections: Tribal Health

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

In September, our learning community ventured up to northeastern Wisconsin for an engaging two-day monthly meeting where we learned about the culture and health of the Menominee and Oneida tribes.   

An important theme was the powerful role that the US history of colonization and systematic oppression of native communities has played in causing the current health concerns of these communities today. Just as salient was the resilience and innovation of the Menominee and Oneida peoples and how they incorporate their culture for improved health and wellness. Jerry Waukau and Diane Hietpas of the Menominee Tribal Clinic explained how compulsory boarding schools, in which Indian children were forced by law to attend government and church run schools for assimilation, caused loss of language, culture, disrupted family ties and community structure, and often resulted in child neglect and abuse (aka ACEs) which is at the root of some of the cyclical family trauma in community. The work that the clinic and its partners are doing around culturally appropriate and person-centered trauma-informed care is making a huge difference in the community, has drastically improved their high school graduation rate, and led to their Culture of Health Prize recognition by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. At the Menominee Cultural Museum, Dave Grignon informed us of the success of ongoing family culture camps in improving substance abuse issues in the community. He also told us about the unjust Termination (I.e. loss of sovereignty) of the Menominee Tribe in 1961 and the major losses of land control, jobs, access to health care, and wealth that resulted, taking a major toll on their quality-of-life. I find it an atrocious abuse of power how the Federal government has stopped recognizing the sovereignty of tribes or forced them off of their land whenever the existence of the tribe was inconvenient for government or corporate profits.

 Fellowship Learning Community learning about food sovereignty, heirloom seeds and community rebuilding from Menikanaehkem.

Fellowship Learning Community learning about food sovereignty, heirloom seeds and community rebuilding from Menikanaehkem.

Personally, I was most inspired by our visit with the grass roots, culture-centered group, Menikanaehkem. I was moved by their guiding philosophy when planning community events, which is, “Is this event going to bring hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose to this community?” As a way to resist the deficit-minded, consumerism culture of our time, this group is refocusing on their traditional cultural practices, values, and spirituality that guided their way of life for thousands of years. Guy Reiter of Menikanaehkem embodied that traditional spirituality with his peaceful presence and conviction to do what is best for the community. He verbalized this mindset when he said things like, “the creator loved us so much that he gave us our language and culture,” “we’re adding to the beautiful story of our people,” and “what matters more than everything is that we connect with each other right here in this moment.” It was easy for me to see how reconnecting to a mindset of gratitude, beauty, and connection with the land and their ancestors can build personal and social resilience and improve the health of their community.

Our discussion with Menikanaehkem has got me pondering. In many ways, Menikanaehkem is the opposite model of governmental public health: grassroots vs. hierarchical institution, culture vs. science, personal connection vs. systems and processes. How should authority, decision-making power, and resources be distributed among these models? How can our rigid institutions be more responsive to the needs of the people in the way that grassroots movements are? What can governmental and academic agencies learn from grassroots groups, whom are closest to the largest inequities, about how to improve the social and physical environment of the communities we live in and serve? How can those of us who work in governmental public health support or collaborate with grassroots groups like Menikanaehkem in a way that honors their history, expertise, culture, and way of life?

 Mr. Dave Grignon at the Menominee Cultural Museum as the Fellowship Program is hosted by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

Mr. Dave Grignon at the Menominee Cultural Museum as the Fellowship Program is hosted by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

I don’t anticipate having all of the answers anytime soon, but we were able to discuss that last question a bit more than the others. During our visit with Menikanaehkem, one memorable piece of advice was that “if you don’t understand us, recognize our strengths, and know your own, then you can’t help us.” Melissa Metoxen from the Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP) and the Oneida Reservation gave similar advice. She said that the key to working with tribes is to enter into relationship with members from the tribes. That means building trust over time by putting the tribes’ interests first, meeting face-to-face, and working hand-in-hand.

~ Cory Steinmetz