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Chairwoman Nancy Bear uses nursing skills to heal ailing Kickapoo economy

HORTON, Kan. - Once upon a time, Kickapoo Chairwoman Nancy Bear was a nurse in an intensive care unit.

When she left her job at the Phoenix Indian Hospital and returned home to the Kickapoo Reservation, she didn't leave her nursing skills behind. Instead, for the past 10 years, she used those healing skills to help heal her tribe's ailing financial woes. The one-time ICU nurse now keeps the pulse of tribal politics in northeastern Kansas.

Bear was born in Nebraska and raised on the Kickapoo Reservation. She left to pursue an education and became a nurse, specializing in intensive care nursing. Bear received her LPN education at Haskell and graduated as a registered nurse from a college in Ada, Okla.

In 1992 she left her career as head nurse at the Phoenix hospital and came home to help her brother care for the family farm near Horton.

In an amazingly short amount of time, Bear found retirement behind her and a new political career beginning. Elected by write-in vote soon after she returned, Bear has served in every capacity except tribal council secretary during the past eight years.

"I did not actively seek political office. I was approached by people here on the reservation who thought I had a lot of common sense," she says.

Bear soon found her nursing skills came in handy as she worked to help her tribe in its struggle to become financially healthy. She weathered personal attacks as well as political battles, but remained focused on what she believes will ultimately decide the fate of the Kickapoo people.

Health care is a major issue for Bear. "We only have enough funding to actually take care of life or death health care issues at this time," Bear said. She would like to see at least enough funding to allow tribal members to have preventative health care, but said that it is an up hill battle.

Bear said she particularly dislikes the fact tribal members have to apply for welfare cards to obtain health care services. "I dislike the whole process. By treaty rights, we should have access for adequate health care for the people.

"We're in the same situation every year; there is not enough money to provide for the people. That is the bottom line. I would like to see more money appropriated and more lobbying by tribes nationwide, to see that we get our fair share of money. We need more money just to exist."

Finding a clean and dependable source of water has been another ongoing challenge for Bear. The current source for the tribe comes from the Delaware River which all but dried up this past summer as a result of drought conditions. After a summer of emergency measures and nearly having to close the tribe's Golden Eagle Casino, Bear is fighting hard to get funding to assure a safe water supply for the northeastern Kansas tribe.

"To develop a large source of drinking water for the Kickapoo tribe. That is a number one and ongoing priority for the tribe," she said.

Although her schedule is hectic, Bear said she still finds time to teach others to can and raises a large garden each summer on the family farm.

"Next summer I will do some canning classes. I raise a huge garden and I can and freeze a lot. I am one of the few people on the reservation who does that. I also go out and pick wild berries and make jelly."

A resurgence of cultural education is taking place on the Kickapoo reservation. In addition to the classes Bear will teach about canning, there are Kickapoo language courses, Native cooking classes and other traditional skills being taught to tribal members through the tribe's educational program.

Bear said she and other tribal council members are concerned about non-Kansas tribes trying to build casinos in Kansas City and Lawrence. She fears the casinos will take business away from Golden Eagle Casino, approximately 56 miles north of Topeka and 90 miles west of Kansas City.

Bear said will do everything possible to prevent non-resident tribes from coming in to the area to take casino business away.

"If that is allowed to happen there have been more and more tribes, knocking at the door," she said, adding, "if that's the case, the Kickapoo tribe came from the Great Lakes area - we once resided outside of Chicago - then we can lay claim to those previous lands. We need to have the right to build a casino there."

In the meantime, the tribe continues to work aggressively to bring in outside business. "We're in a rural area. We have a big-time busing program to bring people to the casino," Bear said. "We would like to have more access to the Kansas City population for the casino."

But with the threats of new Indian gaming businesses possibly opening up closer to highly populated areas, Bear realizes casino revenue on the isolated reservation could be tenuous at best. The Golden Eagle Casino is only going to help the tribe so much and the tribal council is looking for other means of income to keep the tribe solvent, she said since finding another viable source of income would provide more cultural classes and better health care for tribal members.

Energy assistance, bill paying and scholarship money has come from casino revenues, but she added it still falls short of the real needs on the Kickapoo reservation.

"I'm not saying that the casino hasn't helped us. I think the majority of people here use propane that is very expensive." Bear said, "(casino income is) not enough."

The battle to provide better and more adequate services to tribal members has been arduous. Leaders on the Kickapoo Tribal Council are elected to staggered, two-year terms. That means the Kickapoo elect new council members each year. Bear said the constant change makes the continuity of projects started by the council difficult.

Another big battle has been over the cigarette-tax issue. "Our statement to the revenue department is that the small amount of money they would get from the Kickapoo tribe isn't going to make or break the state budget," Bear said. "If we have to give up a share of our tax money to the state of Kansas, then the state of Kansas has to begin giving money to the Kickapoo people for roads, health care ... they utilize our numbers for their funding, but we don't see any of the money."

The tribe is trying to buy land that once belonged to the tribe. A map in Bear's office shows how large the reservation was. The council hopes reservation boundaries will once again stretch across northeastern Kansas, going from 300 square miles back to its original size which went from near the Nebraska border south and adjoined what is now the Potawatomi reservation.

Bear survived a year of conflict over who was actually in charge of the Kickapoo tribe this past year and was voted back on the council. Her message to members of the Kickapoo tribe was one of gratitude.

"As always, I hold the Kickapoo people in very high esteem and I appreciate their vote of confidence and faith in me to allow me to lead."