FAIRFIELD, Iowa – Organizers are preparing for a unique gathering of tribal elders, leaders and members to focus on building sustainable communities through meditation, renewable energy, organic agriculture and cultural preservation.
The event, billed as the “International Conference on Building Healthy, Sustainable American Indian Communities,” is largely being put together by the Hocak Elders Council, the Ho-Chunk Elders Advisory Council, the David Lynch Foundation and members of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
It will be held at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa Sept. 25 – 27. Planners expect hundreds of participants to attend.
“We are very excited to be able to help offer this one-of-a-kind experience,” said Bob Roth, vice president of the David Lynch Foundation, which focuses on spreading scientifically-proven stress-reduction transcendental meditation techniques to at-risk youth.
The meditation techniques focus on regular, quiet reflection times aimed at reducing stress and its harmful health impacts.
Studies have shown the methods to have health benefits, such as curbing behavioral disorders in youth and reducing the need for insulin in those with Type 2 diabetes.
Planners with the foundation are using the conference as a platform to highlight their commitment for the past three years to a project called the “Model American Indian Community Initiative” on the Winnebago Reservation.
The project strives to help at-risk youth relieve stress through meditation. It has achieved some promising results which conference organizers are eager to share.
John Boncheff, an event organizer who co-directs the Winnebago project, said Indian youth in the program are not only doing better in school, they are absent less and have a better chance of graduating.
Esteemed Indian leaders have taken note. Joe A. Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians; Robert Cook, president of the National Indian Education Association; Lucille Echohawk, a strategic planner for Casey Family Programs; and Kevin Skenandore, acting director of the Bureau of Indian Education are scheduled to attend and present at the sustainability gathering.
The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine have started similar projects, hoping for equally positive results. Planners said many more tribal leaders have requested information.
Roth said it has been an honor to see more tribes get involved and for Native Americans to teach each other the benefits of healthy meditation and its similarity to some traditional spiritual beliefs.
Prosper Waukon, a leader with the Hocak Elders Council and a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, said the project has also attracted keen interest from his tribe’s elders.
In 2007, Waukon said several older tribal members took a trip to Maharishi University to learn about transcendental meditation, which the institution strongly promotes. Many were suffering from debilitating side effects of diabetes and wanted to understand ways to meditate to improve their well-being.
Some of the elders have since been able to dramatically better their health outcomes, and some rely much less on diabetes medications, Waukon said.
“Many elders found there was something missing with medication alone. Using meditation to relieve stress ended up helping them connect with traditional ways. It has been a win-win situation.”
As a part of studying the elders’ progress, IHS has contributed $560,000 to the project in in-kind testing services. They are hopeful that IHS may end up promoting the program to more tribes in the future upon seeing positive results.
Information about the elder diabetes program will also be highlighted at the conference.
Waukon said the event won’t just be about promoting sustainability through meditation. It will also feature sessions on organic farming, wind and solar energy development and cultural preservation.
“These are areas of sustainability that all connect to each other,” he said, adding that experts in the various fields will be in attendance.
Boncheff would like the conference to raise awareness of the Winnebago project’s success and to see what can be done to take it to the next level. He is hopeful that at least seven more tribes launch similar sustainability projects by next year.
For people who can’t afford to attend the conference, it will be Web cast onilne. Registration information and more details are also available online.