Founder Cheryl Kary tells us about starting an organization focused on community engagement, Sacred Pipe's innovative model based on community councils, and the importance of funding opportunities that allow Indigenous organizations to design and implement creative and pioneering solutions.
The Medicine Stone Health project, funded with a grant from Azimuth, is doing exactly that—building safe group care spaces for community members to address their health concerns and find creative ways to decolonize health care.
Watch the video or scroll down to read a transcript of the interview.
Hi, my name is Cheryl Kary. I'm the executive director and the founder of The Sacred Pipe Resource Center. We are a Native-led, Native-based nonprofit operating in Bismarck, Mandan and Lincoln, North Dakota. And the cornerstone of our work is community engagement.
The Native community was served in the 1980s and 1990s by an organization called the Peace Pipe Indian Center. And those are kind of our roots. The Peace Pipe Indian Center, though, was more of a social service organization. They provided rental deposits, utilities deposits. They had a food bank, a clothing bank. And they just sort of helped connect the community. So, when they folded, in the late 1990s, then it left a really huge gap in the community. There was no longer a Native-serving organization.
And so, in 2007, a group of us got together and said, "We really do need another Native-serving organization," and started planning for the Sacred Pipe Resource Center. And so, we talked about kind of staying true to those roots but also creating a new organization that does outreach and connects people. That's where we decided to name the organization The Sacred Pipe Resource Center.
We also made a very conscious decision not to be a social service-based agency. What we wanted to do is to help Native people change the circumstances in their own community. And so, that's why community engagement is at the core of what we do. We operate right now with a concept called Community Councils, which are groups of Native people from the community with an interest in a topic area that they would like to see changes happen
The Medicine Stone project is based in the concept that we want Native people to feel comfortable asking questions and taking control of their own health. And so, we do that in a group atmosphere. I feel like, as Native people, we are collaborative, cooperative, family, relatives, people.by Cheryl Kary
THE MEDICINE STONE HEALTH PROJECT
So, when Sacred Pipe first started, they weren't called Community Councils, they were called Community Engagement Teams. And when we first started, we had a Health Community Engagement Team. Their first project was to get a Health Center established. We shot for the stars immediately! And we did work with an organization to try to get a Community Health Center here, but unfortunately, once we got the Health Center established, they cut ties with us and said that they didn't want to work with us any longer. And so that really threw us for a loop for many years.
It ended up being a good thing, because we are reimagining what healthcare looks like. And so, that's where The Medicine Stone project comes in. The Medicine Stone project is actually named after a member of the Community Engagement Team that sought to establish the initial Health Center. She, herself, succumbed to cancer just a couple of months before the Health Center was established. So she got to see the realization of the dream but not any implementation. We feel like she's still with us in many ways and still advocating for that. And I think she would be very happy with the project, the way that we have reimagined it.
So, the Medicine Stone project is based in the concept that we want Native people to feel comfortable asking questions and taking control of their own health. And so, we do that in a group atmosphere. I feel like, as Native people, we are collaborative, cooperative, family, relatives, people. The family unit is most important. Our communities are very important. And so, using that natural inclination to want to be part of a group is kind of a foundation of the Medicine Stone project.
There's all these little barriers, I think, cultural barriers, that we want to help address through this process of doing group healthcare. The Medicine Stone project is based on the idea of Native people taking control of their own health, and sort of decolonizing our ideas of what healthcare is.by Cheryl Kary
So, what we like to do is have group care. So, for example, we prioritize some of the health concerns that we have here in this region, which is diabetes and diabetic management. We've talked about cancer and cancer support. Good prenatal care. And then we have a second project dealing with substance abuse. We also think mental health is a priority. We're taking each of these health concepts, and we want to bring together groups of Native people who have the same area of concern and give them a safe space.
So much of Medicine today is very passive: a patient comes into the doctor; the doctor says, "What are your symptoms?" then the patient tells them; the doctor gives you a diagnosis and then gives you a prescription, "Here's how to handle it;" and then you basically go away and take this medicine. And a lot of that really doesn't address some of the systemic health inequities that Native people face, which is the historical trauma, which is the poverty, which is the lack of support, which is the isolation, the mental health toll of physical health problems.
There's all these little barriers, I think, cultural barriers, that we want to help address through this process of doing group healthcare. The Medicine Stone project is based on the idea of Native people taking control of their own health, and sort of decolonizing our ideas of what healthcare is.
So we want to start with the traditional talking circle, which is letting people talk about how their health concerns have impacted them. So, for example, if we have a group of people with diabetes, or pre-diabetics, or even people who had diabetes and have been living with diabetes for a long time, getting those people together in a room so that they can learn from each other, talk about how diabetes has impacted them and their lives, their relationships, their spirituality, all of those things that we've talked about.
And when we say decolonizing, we mean changing from these historic impacts that have negatively impacted our health: the commodities food program, poverty food. We talk about the type of food that, yes, fills us up for very cheap, but that's typically the most unhealthy type of food. So, we want to have discussions about traditional diets and how we go back to these traditional diets. How do we retrain our palate so that we're not seeking these high-sugar, high-salt types of foods that our palate has gotten used to?
As part of our project, we'll plant foods and gather traditional items: timpsila grows wild in the prairies, still. Onions, things like that, that we can gather and use as part of our cooking. Managing portions, and how we manage portions. Planting foods in your home that aren't necessarily available all year round, that's a big thing, access to fresh fruits and vegetables. So we want to do a little bit of in-home planting and gardening. Letting people know how to plant their own healthy foods and use them in cooking.
And just bringing in the healthcare providers, but only for the key healthcare things that they need to impress upon them about how the body is operating, how the body is working. When people don't hear that they have control over their health, then they tend to take a real fatalistic view. And if I had a dime for every Native person who has said, "I'm diabetic now, it's a death sentence." They feel like it's a death sentence because they can no longer eat the foods that they enjoy.
We also want to talk about how to shop and try new foods. A big part of this project is doing some taste testing. When you're low-income, a lot of times, you stick with what you know because you can't afford to explore. You can't afford to try ugly fruit, or dragon fruit, or quinoa, or different types of foods that are better for you, as a diabetic, for example.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUPPORTING INDIGENOUS-LED PROJECTS
I am super, super grateful for the Azimuth funding because we submitted a grant that basically said we want to do this strange project in a strange way. I think a big part of why this funding is particularly helpful is because it does allow us to be creative in the solutions that we look toward.
We've done the regular healthcare model. And things haven't changed. In fact, things have, in a lot of ways, gotten worse. And I think a big part of that is because the healthcare industry is so very segmented, and it doesn't look at the whole, the holistic health of an individual. But when we look at Native populations, we have to recognize that we are very holistic individuals.
My physical health really depends on where I am financially, it depends on where I am in a relationship with other people in my family, it depends on what trauma my family has gone through, it depends on where I am spiritually, and what I believe about my life and my connections. And so, there's all these other factors that go into health, and I think the healthcare arena is starting to recognize that, and we're seeing more changes, but obviously, the healthcare system is a big system that's hard to make changes to.
And so, being able to do a smaller project like this, with our community, I think is really, really, truly, truly helpful because it is going to take small projects like this, in a community, to make those types of changes that we see and need.
Everything that we do is really around this idea of taking control of our health, of our environment, of our economics, of our housing, of our lives. And that's really the core. When we say community engagement, that's what we mean.by Cheryl Kary
SACRED PIPE & COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
I think this project is just kind of one example of how Sacred Pipe wants to be creative in how we address concerns. So, for example, this project focuses on physical health of individuals and the health inequities that we see in our community.
But we also see things like our housing inequities. And we are working on a Native Tenants Rights Association to help raise the voice of Native people so that they can address the housing issue and the housing precariousness that also plays into health.
We do projects on civic engagement, which is getting people to stand up and advocate for themselves and to let elected leaders know what they need and what they want.
So everything that we do is really around this idea of taking control of our health, of our environment, of our economics, of our housing, of our lives. And that's really the core. When we say community engagement, that's what we mean.
The health inequities, and actually all of the other inequalities that we face as Native people, they didn't happen overnight; they happened through a long period of history of sustained stress on our communities, and so it is going to take a long time to rebuild our communities, and to inform our communities, and to make behavioral changes.by Cheryl Kary
And it is so helpful to have funding, like the Azimuth funding, which allows us to be creative. Because we're on the frontlines of our community, we see people every day and we work with people every day, and we know what those barriers are going to be. And it's a long haul. It's not something that's going to happen overnight.
The health inequities, and actually all of the other inequalities that we face as Native people, they didn't happen overnight; they happened through a long period of history of sustained stress on our communities, and so it is going to take a long time to rebuild our communities, and to inform our communities, and to make behavioral changes.
And so, I think just having foundations that are willing to walk with us on this path and help us to make improvements, I think, is really helpful. That creativity, that trust and that longevity, those, I think, are key things to helping us change a lot of the socioeconomic ills that we see in our communities today.
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