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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Too often, mainstream news stories about health challenges in Indian Country focus on a “deficit-based narrative — just the statistics,” says Sasha Houston Brown, who works for the Center of Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

“It’s like, here are the diabetes statistics in Indian Country, and here are the COVID deaths. And yes, that is absolutely real — we feel that every day,” she said. “But it also shifts the narrative to focus on just the deficits, and this can shift how White society and other communities see us.”

Brown, Mdewakanton Dakota from the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska, was one of the leaders of a virtual Digital Media Arts Camp held this week where students used mixed media to produce journalism projects focused on the impacts of systematic racism in the health field.

The event was hosted by the Center for Prevention and ThreeSixty Journalism, a nonprofit initiative that provides training and support to high school students. Brown helped choose this year’s Indigenous story topics and partner organizations.

“Systemic racism is a driver of health inequities in our state and nation, and the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infection in Black, Indigenous and communities of color further underscore that stark reality,” said Dr. Mark Steffen, chief medical officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. “We need to address racism as a public health crisis and work to support community-led solutions to health inequities. A huge part of this is changing the dominant narrative on health and empowering young diverse journalists as storytellers.”

Students partnered with three Native organizations — the American Indian Center, IllumiNative, and Dream of Wild Health — to produce content that explored the topic of health inequity in Indigenous communities.

“As Native peoples we really understand the power of storytelling, and we also understand why who's telling our stories is so significant. We know what happens when our stories are sometimes misrepresented,” Brown said.

The three projects covered diverse topics such as racist mascots, food sustainability and elder meal programs.

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Student Ally Brodin created a podcast with IllumiNative that discussed the negative impact racist mascots can have on Indigenous people’s mental health. She explained how studies have shown that racist mascots and the fan behavior associated with the use of Native mascots can impact Native youth by lowering their self esteem and increasing rates of depression and substance abuse.

Kennedy Rance designed a graphic art poster that explained the mission of Dream of Wild Health, an organization that seeks to “restore health and well-being in the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways.”

Emil Linden took photos at the Minneapolis American Indian Center’s Elder Meal Program and interviewed Chef Brian Yazzie, Diné, who runs the program. The center’s chefs have been working especially hard over the past few months to provide meals for elders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For me as a chef, it's just giving back to the community, staying grounded with my roots and using my platform, my network and my skills to put that on the front line and keep the community fit during this time,” Yazzie said.

Brown said the projects aimed to show the cultural solutions to racially based health challenges, not solely focus on negative statistics.

“You can talk about issues and systematic racism but do it in a way that uplifts the amazing and vibrant community work taking place,” she said. “There are culturally based solutions happening, and we need to give just as much, if not more, media attention to that.”

ThreeSixty Journalism and the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross have hosted the TV Broadcast Camp for four years, as part of an effort to “change the mainstream health narrative, by giving voice to those most impacted by inequity.” This year the program moved online due to the pandemic. The result was the inaugural Digital Media Arts Camp, where students were able to interact with journalism mentors over Zoom.

“Something that gives me a lot of hope is that there are programs out there that are really trying to support young journalists of color to really change the narrative, whether that's on issues of health, race, equity or education,” said Brown. “Journalism and communications in and of itself can actually be a form of resistance based on who's telling our stories.”

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.