Community Health and Wellness Start With Our Individual Commitment

May 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-4: Health and Healing, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

WELLNESS GRAPHICIn indigenous society, the belief that people can overcome our problems through ceremony and prayer has always been very powerful. Sitting Bull and his wife, who are depicted on our cover, are reminiscent of this way of life.

In her essay, Northwest Indian College President Cheryl Crazy Bull reminds us of a teaching of the great Hunkpapa leader, Sitting Bull. “He said it is not the one branch that has strength but the many branches bound together in a bundle that cannot be broken.”

When individuals sacrifice of themselves in some way – by dancing, by chanting, by fasting, by seeking vision in isolation – they do so for the greater good, for the people, not just for themselves. Many Native people still practice these ways, taking upon themselves responsibility for others and believing that their individual actions will uplift an entire group.

I see a similar kind of power generated by Native people who demonstrate mental and physical resilience in contemporary society. Many work in the tribal colleges as administrators, faculty, and support staff. They include people who are academics and artists and people who are highly knowledgeable in traditional ways – medicine people, traditional healers, botanists, storytellers, linguists, and craftspeople, to name a few.

Native students and community members look up to such people, who give them hope for similar psychological and physical health. I think that the healthy, glowing person who believes in his or her own power can most effectively influence others.

The idea of upholding positive imagery contrasts with the mainstream media’s negative campaigns and use of scare tactics to address societal ills and epidemics: the disfigured face that combats the use of smokeless tobacco, the mangled car that illustrates the dangers of driving drunk, the ravaged face that reveals the horror of meth addiction. When I’ve seen such messages, I’ve only felt fear and dread. Those feelings are often paralyzing, not motivating.

Collectively, the tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) present a positive and courageous face against the growing crisis of illness and needless deaths. In this issue, we present several health-related research projects undertaken by tribal colleges. The research is relevant to their communities and exposes students to important career paths    At Fort Peck Community College (FPCC), inspired community members are walking the treadmills and filling up exercise classes in numbers large enough to require a second college wellness center. Dr. Jim Shanley, the FPCC college president who visioned a healthier community years ago, still hits the exercise equipment alongside everyone else. In fact, several tribal colleges offer fitness, sports, and community programs aimed at improving community wellbeing.

Herbert Clayton Napie, Jr., a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts, uses his artwork to assist recovery from the impact of suicide within his family, while also directing attention to the epidemic among Native people. Similarly, students in other tribal colleges are finding their voices and personal power in art and writing classes. Dr. Denise Low-Weso writes in “Talking Circle” about how such classes help students attain balance in their lives.

Providing more qualified health care workers to serve Indian country is another challenge that TCUs strive to meet. They offer programs in nursing, community health, public health, environmental health, and the treatment of chemical dependency, to name but a few. The tribal colleges make sure their graduates are not only professionally competent but also culturally competent to meet the needs of Native patients.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, over one-third of the 62 registered nurses positions are filled by graduates of the Oglala Lakota College nursing program, according to a new report by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (The Path of Many Journeys: The Benefits of Higher Education for Native People and Communities).

Likewise, Sisseton Wahpeton College in South Dakota has graduated over 100 practical nurses or certified nursing assistants; this year, the tribal college added a program for registered nurses. Several other TCUs are currently developing or expanding nursing programs.

Positive Native power is needed now more than ever to deal with the frightening health statistics and epidemics that plague our people. According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), tribal leaders currently rank health as one of their top concerns for Indian Country.

There is an enormous disparity between Native people and the rest of America in both overall health status and access to health care. Native peoples in the United States experience higher disease rates and lower life expectancy than any other racial or ethnic group.

Native people also experience substantially higher rates of diabetes, mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, influenza, and injuries. Our infant mortality rate is 150% greater than that of Anglo infants. We have the highest prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in the world and are 2.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Indians in this country. Natives have a life expectancy 5 years shorter than the rest of the U.S. population.

Obesity is another epidemic found among groups with the highest poverty rates. The national cost of treating obesity-related illnesses and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes by some estimates exceeds $76 billion annually in direct costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

As we go to press in March 2007, the 110th Congress is expected to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and to include tribes in the Combat Meth Act. Yet, since 1992, four Congresses have failed to pass proposals for reauthorization of the law that governs Indian health care. Limited funding for health care is a recurring crisis.

“You can’t educate unless the students are healthy,” says Cankdeska Cikana Community College President Dr. Cynthia Lindquist-Mala.

The healthy personal journeys undertaken by Native people in pursuit of higher education are also pathways to improved communities – including better health and recovery from many illnesses and traumas. They are the journeys of individuals who hope that their sacrifices and efforts will positively affect their people.

Thank you to those who take time to walk every day, to pursue artistic and creative outlets, to eat healthy, and to strive to be well, and also to those who give care and love to people who are sick or in pain. We are all accountable for recovery, staying healthy and well, and uplifting our communities.

Tina Deschenie (Dine/Hopi) has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 2006. She has over 20 years of experience in American Indian education. For more information on Native health issues, see the National Indian Health Board website at

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