By the turn of this century substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty and low graduation rates cast a pall over everyday life. A University of Nebraska study in 2005 found that 3 in every 4 people on the nearly 2,000-person reservation lived in poverty.
Something had to give.
In 2013, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians Tribal Council declared a “state of emergency” because of the endemic drug and alcohol abuse. This clarion call set into motion a series of events that would change the direction of the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg and put them back on a path toward better health—and which would begin by restoring the dignity and foundation of this unique Ojibwe culture.
“Health isn’t just about taking a pill or getting a diagnosis. It’s about having that strong cultural identity. It’s physical. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual,” says Carol Amour, a former teacher and now district consultant at Lac du Flambeau Public School. “It’s balance. We have an administration that wants what’s best for these children, 97 percent of whom are native. What’s best comes from doing it the Ojibwe way.”
This palpable resilience echoes across this 12-square-mile reservation. Within these boundaries and beyond them, something remarkable is taking place as the community is coming together to apply a holistic approach to health—but viewed through the prism of the tribe’s culture. This profound effort has earned the people of the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg the RWJF Culture of Health Prize.
By resurrecting cultural teachings that were buried not all that long ago, tribal members say they can have the most impact now and on the next generations. Cultural renewal promotes pride, a stronger sense of self and better health in the long run, they say. Even so, the tribe has gotten healthier by addressing some of the structural deficits as well:
- The Peter Christensen Health Center arrived in late 2009, and a dental clinic—now with 27 chairs—followed in 2013. Before, services were limited and tribal members had to seek care off-reservation in non-native communities. The distance was daunting, and treatment in non-native centers was sometimes insensitive to the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg culture. Not surprisingly, this discouraged people from receiving regular care. The new clinics are staffed with people who understand the unique needs and sensitivities of the tribe, and students from the public school and Head Start program are regularly bused in for routine dental care.
- The Wellness Center/Lac du Flambeau Center for Fitness is the first exercise facility for the general public in the area. The center operates on a sliding scale based on income, and though it of course has exercise equipment, it’s more than a gym. It offers classes, nutrition programs, elder services and an infant-parenting program as well as a Community Health Department.
- Play isn’t just about passing time or having fun. It’s an essential element of healthy living, as lifelong habits often take root during childhood. In 2013 in Lac du Flambeau, Thunderbird Park in downtown was a mess, overrun with grass, brush and litter. The playground equipment was broken, and not a park bench was in sight. This prime location was an eyesore begging for attention. In an effort to prevent substance abuse, a group of residents came together and cleaned up the parks located in housing development areas. Their efforts prompted the tribe to seek funds to refurbish Thunderbird Park with new playground equipment, benches, landscaping, and a basketball court. Today, it’s a popular gathering place for families.
- The tribal council also partnered with the state to build a Community Based Residential Facility for those recovering from addiction, the first of its kind on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Intent on providing restoration and healing instead of incarceration, the Vilas County Court and the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Court agreed to treat addiction and to seek restorative justice. The ultimate goal is to move tribal members toward minobimaadiziiwin, or living in a good way. This approach dovetails with other work on the reservation, including efforts to help heal families torn apart by addition and drug abuse.
These efforts addressed existing problems and created the infrastructure needed for enduring change, but in order to create sustainable improvements that would be carried from generation to generation, the tribe decided to connect with its past to ensure a healthy present—and future.
“Knowing who you are, where you come from, that gives you a foundation for good mental health,” says Tina Handeland, director of the tribe’s Head Start program. “Having a sense of identity is one of the biggest assets you can have. You don’t only know where you come from but also where you want to go. It gives you a sense of direction and contributes to health in so many ways.”
Reconciling and ultimately beginning to heal the wounds of this past would require time, of course, but also a deliberate effort to return the tribe’s culture—beginning with the Ojibwe language—to its proper place.