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Participants imagine a healthy community

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Winnebago Tribal Chairman Matthew Pilcher said he recently attended the funeral of a 16-year-old girl who died giving birth to her second child.

Something needs to be done, he said.

''We have issues that need to be addressed and young people are at the top of the list,'' said John Blackhawk, chairman of the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen's Health Board.

''Begin the process of talking about it. Make it a point to visit with young people. Elders always talked to me and I do the same; it's part of me,'' Blackhawk said. ''Get to know the young people.''

American Indian youth live each day exposed to drugs and alcohol, and more are feeling the effects of poor diets that are usually due to poverty and the use of high-fat, high-carbohydrate commodities. Pre-diabetes indicators are detected in people of a young age more often, and being overweight and obese are contributing factors.

Health care officials, tribal leaders and medical professionals gathered recently to discuss American Indian health and, with few exceptions, repeated most of what had been discussed the past few years. The main topic was funding.

Young people, who constitute the majority of the population on the reservations, have the right to live in a healthy community, tribal officials assert.

What does a healthy community look like? The participants in the quarterly AATCHB Health Summit discussed a healthy community in an open-space forum called Rez Cafe. The participants were separated into groups to discuss the question. Everyone had a chance to offer ideas and those ideas were discussed.

Most people agreed that a healthy community would be alcohol-free and void of poverty; there would be a total caring and sharing atmosphere with high self-esteem; a good education system tailored to the community; and togetherness. These were just a few suggestions.

As the discussions emerged, many people related experiences in childhood to what they perceived as a healthy community. Some said they were poor but didn't know it; they were happy and family was very central to the community life. A community that watched out for everyone and acted as guardians for all the children was remembered by many, and a horse-drawn wagon ride to church on Sunday was a memorable event for one participant.

But is that type of community possible, given some of the roadblocks?

The next question for participants was: What is holding that healthy community back?

Among the many roadblocks cited were alcohol, poverty, the lack of opportunity, mistrust, low self-esteem and dependence.

One team came up with the idea that nothing was holding that healthy community back. With the development of a strategic plan, communication and leadership, the healthy community could be achieved.

Joseph Brings Plenty, newly elected tribal chairman for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said the summit was a learning experience.

''This got my attention and I look forward to more. I came out with an understanding.''

The tribal chairmen, tribal health officials and IHS officials all participated in the forum. Each person had input. Pilcher said the open-space format was more informative than sitting and listening to lectures all day.

''I like to listen to everybody talk and come up with answers,'' he said.

Robert Cournoyer, chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said, ''It's hard to find words that have relevancy.

''We have a great responsibility and we have to lead,'' he said. ''The funding level bothers me. On our reservation we have the highest health care disparities. We have doctors that are inexperienced and people are dying younger than they should. I see people dying weekly; it's atrocious.''

He said he recognized that health care was expensive but said, ''If we are going to do a proper job, let's get the money for it.''

Money is always at the top of the agenda of every meeting that deals with health.

''When we run into problems we have to remind the government about the treaties. Money is eaten up by administration costs and they ignore us,'' Pilcher said.

To end the session, each person set exercise targets and pledged to leave with a personal goal, which may be to become more involved with youth, a community activity, mentor youth, be more dedicated to their profession or improve their personal lives in a healthy manner.