Wyatt Pickner, MPH

Hunkpati Dakota, American Indian Cancer Foundation Research Manager

My name is Wyatt Pickner and I am Hunkpati Dakota (Crow Creek Sioux Tribe). Currently, I am the Research Manager at the American Indian Cancer Foundation (AICAF). As an Indigenous person, I have witnessed firsthand the many health inequities and cancer burdens our relatives face. Cancer has profoundly influenced my life, family, and community, leading to my work with AICAF and our 10th annual Powwow for Hope.

I grew up surrounded by a huge family that provided me with guidance, support, and love. My Auntie Helen was with my mom on the night I was born and the first person to hold me. Since then, she has given me so much inspiration, courage, and strength. She taught me many things, from how to tie my shoes to the importance of showing up for those I love. My Auntie Helen also taught me the power of humor, especially during hard times.

Exactly 22 years after my Auntie held me for the first time, she made her journey to the spirit world after fighting cancer for many years. My family and I grieved her loss while also honoring the impact her life had on so many people. During my aunt’s fight with cancer, I began pursuing what would become my life’s work: improving health outcomes for Native communities.

In choosing this career, I realized that many of the traditional Dakota values I was raised with align with the foundation of public health. Our health is not just physical. It is connected to how we think, feel, and interact with everything around us. Physical health plays a significant role in our lives but is also impacted by our emotional and spiritual health. Everything is related.

Part of what we do at AICAF is addressing the fundamental issues related to social determinants of health to make sustainable and meaningful improvements to the well-being of our communities. I am grateful to contribute to reducing cancer burdens in Indian Country, and I do this work in honor of my relatives. Working for AICAF is not just a job for me: it is a way to honor those who are no longer with us while also caring for our relatives. It’s a way of life. It is what we as Native people have always done and continue to do.

AICAF’s 10th annual Powwow for Hope will take place on Aug. 28, 2021. This event provides space for community healing and honoring loved ones impacted by a cancer diagnosis. Every member of our staff plays a crucial role in its success.

powwow for hope

Powwow for Hope is also a national fundraiser that benefits the Foundation’s mission to eliminate cancer burdens on Native people through improved access to prevention, early detection, treatment, and survivor support. Thanks to advancements made in battling COVID-19, Powwow for Hope will be held in person this year at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

AICAF’s motto is “Healing with culture. Reclaiming Indigenous health.” As a Dakota, the descendant of those who survived numerous atrocities before, during, and after the Dakota War of 1862 and the hanging of the Dakota 38 + 2, it is very meaningful to work in Mni Sota makoce (Minnesota). This is our homeland, from which we were forcibly removed to South Dakota after years of starvation, broken promises, and preventable deaths due to appalling living conditions, disease, and hunger.

Since then, the overt and covert effects of colonization continue to impact our communities through systemic, institutional, and structural racism. This combined with historical and intergenerational trauma has led to significant physical, emotional, and spiritual burdens -- including cancer. Despite this, our communities continue to grow, thrive, and foster the strength and resilience passed down through the generations. We maintain our cultural identities, values, protocols, and practices, including how we take care of each other and heal together.

The fact that Powwow for Hope, an event dedicated to health and healing, will be held less than ten miles from where so many ancestors were held as prisoners of war below Fort Snelling is powerful. We are dedicated to reclaiming Indigenous health, and our Powwow for Hope will provide community healing for many. While planning this event, I’ve remembered my Auntie Helen, my Aunt Carole Anne, my Grandma Margaret, my Uncle Sonny, and other family members impacted by cancer. Powwow for Hope is about honoring our loved ones who have passed, celebrating our cancer survivors who are here, and healing as a community.

If you can’t make it to Minneapolis this summer, I invite everyone to participate by helping to fundraise, spreading awareness, or sending your prayers. We appreciate the support of our partners, our communities, and our relatives. We are inspired by the wisdom and strength of our ancestors. AICAF is a Native-led, Native-governed organization dedicated to helping our people in a good way. It’s what we have always done and what, with your help, we will continue to do.