Introduction: Tribal Colleges Build Native Wellness

Sep 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 11-1: 10th Anniversary Issue
By Marjane Ambler

Photo of unidentified canoeists from the Stommish Festival by Frederick Lane. Northwest Indian College provides courses for college credit in "Indian Canoe Racing" as part of its physical activity program.

The 11 paddles move as one, powered by lean, muscled bodies. The canoeists breathe as one, their lungs strong from running three to five miles every night. The canoe culture lives in the Lummi Tribe. The canoe crews live rich, healthy lives, training two to four hours a night for the race season. They don’t smoke, and they don’t drink. Often their children also are on paddling crews, training just as hard.

Before Europeans arrived on this continent, the indigenous people lived off the land and sea, eating fish, bison, berries, wild rice, corn, beans, and squash. Their lives depended upon their fitness.

Now they have changed as all Americans have changed, but the toll for them has been heavier. When the tribal colleges gathered for their annual conference in Billings last spring, the meeting started with a prayer for those who had died since the previous conference. Heads bowed and eyes filled throughout the room, remembering a friend who was killed by a drunk driver, a colleague who finally lost her battle against diabetes, a student killed by her boyfriend, a high school student who hung himself, a husband who died at his desk from a heart attack.

Of all American Indian and Alaska Native people who died during 1992-1994, an incredible 30 percent were under 45 years, compared to 11 percent of all other races, according to Indian Health Service statistics (1997 Trends in Indian Health). Tuberculosis, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and accidents contribute to a death rate more than triple that of the rest of the United States. American Indians have the highest rates of diabetes in the world, ranging from 5 to 50 percent.This issue of the Tribal College Journal is devoted to the tribal colleges’ efforts to regain the health of their people’s ancestors. In the pages that follow, you will read Donna Demarest’s and Kenneth Ryan’s analyses of the causes for the health crisis in Indian Country.

As Ryan points out, traditional family values protected family members from alcoholism, family abuse, and despair. Tribal colleges cannot reverse the social disintegration and pull their people out of poverty overnight. They are doing what they can with the limited resources available to them–building fitness centers and walking trails; training nurses, dentists, and drug counselors; sponsoring wellness conferences; and creating injury prevention curriculum and child protection programs. Other efforts described in this issue include:

  • Diné College moving diabetes research out of the Ivory Tower and into the community and being selected by the National Diabetes Prevention Center as a model,
  • Oglala Lakota Nation Wellness Team building collaboration amongst organizations on the Pine Ridge Reservation,
  • Department of Health and Human Services’ creating partnerships with the tribal colleges under the Executive Order
  • Northwest Indian College’s improving nutrition and increasing physical activity amongst tribes in the region,
  • Fort Berthold Community College re-establishing farming as a path to wellness,
  • Woodlands tribal colleges shaping sacred foods curriculum.

Tribal colleges won’t be able to save all their neighbors and friends, much less all of American Indian people in the nation who will die too soon. Nevertheless, they are creating models and changing lives, one community at a time.

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