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A Native American Tribe declared a health state of emergency. Here’s how it’s getting better.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

For centuries, the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg tribe in Wisconsin, lived, breathed, taught and nurtured a culture of health. The land's bounty — blueberries, blackberries, fish, wild rice, and venison — kept them well fed, and sustainability was implicit. Education was something that started at birth and really never ended, as generations of knowledge accumulated by the elders swept across the tribe. Housing, employment, and active lifestyles — all elements of modern living — were threaded into the fabric of tribal culture.

But the historical trauma that would upend so many native cultures in North America would descend upon the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg, too. Over the years, the federal government's heavy-handed — and in many instances, brutal — efforts to assimilate the tribe would inflict wounds that still fester today. The rich culture was stripped away and the land despoiled. The tribe's collective health suffered greatly.

By the turn of this century substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, and low graduation rates cast a pall over everyday life. A University of Nebraska study in 2005 found that 3 in every 4 people on the nearly 2,000-person reservation lived in poverty.

The turning point

In 2013, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians Tribal Council declared a "state of emergency" because of the endemic drug and alcohol abuse. This clarion call set into motion a series of events that would change the direction of the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg and put them back on a path toward better health — and which would begin by restoring the dignity and foundation of this Ojibwe culture.

"Health isn't just about taking a pill or getting a diagnosis," says Carol Amour, a former teacher and now district consultant at Lac du Flambeau Public School. "It's about having that strong cultural identity. It's physical. It's emotional. It's spiritual We have an administration that wants what's best for these children, 97 percent of whom are native. What's best comes from doing it the Ojibwe way."

This sense of resilience echoes across this 12-square-mile reservation. Within its boundaries and beyond them, something remarkable is taking place as the community is coming together to apply a holistic approach to health, viewed through the prism of the tribe's culture. This profound effort has earned the people of the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize.

By resurrecting cultural teachings that were buried not all that long ago, tribe members say they can have the most impact now and on the next generations. Cultural renewal promotes pride, a stronger sense of self and better health in the long run, they say. Even so, the tribe has gotten healthier by addressing some structural deficits.

BUILDING community by building infrastructure

The Peter Christensen Health Center opened in late 2009, and a dental clinic followed in 2013. Previously, services were limited and tribe members had to seek care off-reservation in non-native communities. The distance was daunting, and treatment in non-native centers was sometimes insensitive. Not surprisingly, this discouraged people from receiving regular care. The new clinics are staffed with people who understand the unique needs and sensitivities of the tribe, and students from the public school and Head Start program are regularly bused in for routine dental care.

The Wellness Center/Lac du Flambeau Center for Fitness is the first exercise facility for the general public in the area. The center charges a sliding scale based on income, and it's more than just a gym. It offers classes, nutrition programs, elder services, and an infant-parenting program, as well as a Community Health Department.

Play is also an essential element of healthy living, as lifelong habits often take root during childhood. In 2013 in Lac du Flambeau, Thunderbird Park in downtown was a mess, overrun with grass, brush, and litter. In an effort to prevent substance abuse, a group of residents came together and cleaned up the parks located in housing development areas. Their efforts prompted the tribe to seek funds to refurbish Thunderbird Park with new playground equipment, benches, landscaping, and a basketball court. Today, it's a popular gathering place for families.

The tribal council also partnered with the state to build a Community Based Residential Facility for those recovering from addiction, the first of its kind on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Intent on providing restoration and healing instead of incarceration, the Vilas County Court and the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Court agreed to treat addiction and to seek restorative justice. The ultimate goal is to move tribal members toward minobimaadiziiwin, or living in a good way. This approach dovetails with other work on the reservation, including efforts to help heal families torn apart by addition and drug abuse.

The tribe also decided to connect with its past to ensure a healthy present — and future. "Knowing who you are, where you come from, that gives you a foundation for good mental health," says Tina Handeland, director of the tribe's Head Start program. "Having a sense of identity is one of the biggest assets you can have. You don't only know where you come from but also where you want to go. "

Language as a healing force

Wayne Valliere now teaches his tribe's unique Ojibwe dialect to the next generation. His lessons take place in a building where children were once severely beaten and punished for speaking their language.

The beauty of the restored structure — an exterior painted a cheery orange with crisp white trim, an interior featuring large, airy rooms and refinished wood floors — belies the horrors of what occurred when it was part of U.S. Department of Indian Affairs' boarding school complex, from 1895 to 1932. Enrollment was first voluntary and then compulsory, and native children between the ages of 5 and 15 were forcibly taken from their families and brought here. Valliere's grandmother was 7 when she was torn from her parents and grandparents.

"She told us awful things happened," says Valliere, who works for the Tribal Ojibwe Language Program. "They weren't allowed to speak their language, about their culture, their families, or anything native, or they'd be punished. It was the government's way of assimilating Native Americans. They thought they were doing us a favor."

Though the Waaswaaganing Anishinaabeg understand that language alone will not be the salve for their health challenges, returning it to its proper place as well as embracing other native teachings are seen as essential ingredients of a healthy foundation. For instance, the tribe's centuries-old native teachings — humility, honesty, love, respect, bravery, wisdom, and truth — demand a respect for nature and encourage a connection to the Great Spirit, the omnipresent creator.

"The seven teachings help you function in the world, as a native and a non-native citizen," says Brian Jackson, an adviser to the Cultural Connections program. "It's about being a person. It's about building a citizen."

A tradition steeped in health

This building takes place in classrooms, but also amid the forests and lakes of the reservation. "Honor your older brothers," Valliere tells a group of eighth graders who are about to take canoes out into an area lake to harvest rice. The plants and animals were the Great Spirit's first creations, he tells the students. Humans came later.

Before the harvesting begins, Valliere recites a traditional prayer in his native tongue, then sprinkles some tobacco into the water. It's an offering — a thank you — to the Great Spirit. The teens follow his example, taking a pinch and letting the tobacco grounds flutter into the lake and across the forest floor.

Let loose on the water, the students spend the next several hours using ricing sticks to detach the grains from the plants, collecting the bounty into their canoes. Handeland says traditional tasks such as the rice harvest serve as a sort of healing force, bringing social cohesion. After all, this is something that had been done by ancestors hundreds of years ago.

Education in all its forms

Perhaps no other innovation embodies what is taking place in Lac du Flambeau better than ENVISION. Though still in its infancy, this youth-driven learning program bridges generations while conveying life skills that don't fit neatly into any academic category. It's project-based and immerses middle school students in the Ojibwe culture. Using traditional tribal methodologies, at-risk youth are redirected, often with the gentle guidance of community leaders and elders.

On a recent weekday, the elders who lead the "Cooking with Grandmas" program met in Lac du Flambeau School's Gathering Place to help some teenage girls prepare food for an upcoming feast. While one girl stirred a mixture of wild rice and venison stewing in a slow cooker, another bakes corn bread in the kitchen. This is "the Ojibwe way," a refrain that brings home what matters here.

Grandma Tinker Schuman teaches the girls the proper way to core strawberries, but not just the tactile task. She goes on to explain that the berry was also known as the "heart fruit" because of its shape, and that it was important in some ceremonies. "They're learning," Schuman says with zaagidwin, or love, as she watches them.

Both ENVISION and Standing In a Good Way, an anti-bullying program, were developed with student involvement. School officials have also found that ENVISION students are better behaved, have better attendance, and are more engaged in classwork.

These and other programs developed over the past several years — some working with parents, others directly in the schools — have resulted in stunning turnarounds. Lakeland Union High School, which serves Lac du Flambeau high school students, has seen an increase in American Indian graduation rates, from 43 percent in 2010 to 81 percent in 2014.

It's these beacons of progress — some via statistics, others in the form of freshly poured sidewalks, still others seen in a child's hopeful eyes — that are turning heads in Lac du Flambeau and beyond. Melinda Young, the tribe's historic preservation officer, says that by listening and gaining a full understanding of these complex issues, the floodgates opened.

"With any trauma, " she says, "you have to be able to talk about it to heal."

If your community is on a journey to better health, be sure to apply for the Prize. The application deadline is November 12.

Learn about what it takes to create healthier communities here >

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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