Bringing Back the Story: Wellbound Storytellers and Health Empowerment

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The Navajo Sugar Monster

Long ago the Holy People predicted that a monster would take over the Navajos.

Our mothers and fathers would change…No longer were man and woman together.

One after another this monster ate away their faces.

It gnawed away Navajo identity….Everything turned from light to dark….Words ceased to exist.

The Holy People begin to cry.

The Navajo language meets its end…Mouths would soon close entirely.

X marked the spot….Over the eyes and mouths of the people.

The Navajo were not human anymore.

They were beings who craved only one thing

It was not water or food…Nor prayer or traditions…Nor love or family.

The Holy People were right.

Sugar is our monster.

A killer claiming Navajo lives…With a craving that could never be satisfied

Who are these monsters?

Mom? Dad?  Where are the elders? Where is my family?  Who will save us?

It’s going to claim the next generation if things don’t change…

We must stand and make a change…Stand up and fight against this monster

For you…For your family,

Your mother, Your father, Your children

For your Nation.

by Chantelle Yazzie (A neo-traditional story published on Wellbound Storytellers.)

Stacy Braiuca is one of the Native Americans writing for Wellbound Storytellers.  “There are currently 11 ‘Wellbounders’ all over the country, all different Nations, ages, backgrounds.  We try to write about strengths and weaknesses in our journey.  Not only are we trying to be a group of leaders to start a movement of storytelling, but storytelling is a natural fit to health empowerment.”

Just a year old, The WellBound Storytellers “blog is specifically trying to use storytelling to empower people, ourselves and others, on our health journey.”  Indeed, storytelling is essential to the wellness of native people.  “We have always told stories to pass our values, lessons, and learning to the next generation,” Ms Braiuca relates.

Ms. Braiuca is a Clinical Social Worker and Public Health educator. She works full time as a Research Associate for thewpid-Photo-Mar-22-2012-941-PM Center for American Indian Community Health and Healthy Living Kansas at the University of Kansas Medical Center, working on research projects about cancer, obesity, and health literacy.  She is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation (hence CPN).   According to the CPN website, “The CPN are Algonquian-speaking people who originally occupied the Great Lakes Region of the United States.  Originally the Potawatomi were part of the Three Fires Council made up of Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa, collectively known as Anishnabek peoples.”

Staying connected to one’s heritage is important to health according to Ms. Braiuca.  “Citizen Potawatomi Nation has members globally. They have the first population representative legislative government of contemporary Indian Nations.  We live everywhere are all connected via …  CPN FaceBook pages and CPN website.”

“Native Peoples sharing their journey to wellness”is the tagline for the Wellbound Storytellers blog.  And the journey to wellness is definitely needed among Native People.

According to the Indian Health Service of the US HHS Fact sheets, native peoples have a lower life expectancy than all the races of the US.  The leading causes of deaths according to 2005-2007 data, are heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries and diabetes.  Native Peoples have higher rates of death by alcoholism (552%), diabetes (182%) and unintentional injuries (138%) than other Americans.

Ms Braiuca points to history in explaining much of the health disparities that plague Native people.  “Native health is a concern in all health areas. Disparities are woven into [our] history [as a result of the] 500 years of Colonial policy debacle.”  The issue of trust in western medicine is key among native culture “for example smallpox blankets, commodity food, Indian Health Service, reservations, removal [and] because traditional healthcare [has been] taken away,” Ms. Braiuca recounts. In fact “diabetes, cancer, and loss of culture and [traditional] medicine and language are tightly woven,” she says.

Native American genetic make up was not designed for Western diet and cultural habits.  Diabetes is a major health problem among native people.  The reasons vary but include “lack of prevention, poor healthcare and commodities like flour and sugar and lard, used to make fry bread which is not a traditional food!”  Traditional foods are the “three sisters– corn, squash, beans– and wild rice, fish and wild game,” Ms Braiuca says.

Another risk factor for Native people is smoking.  “We have the highest rates of smoking of any population in the US, over 40%,” Ms. Braiuca states.  However she is clear that this problem is connected with the recreational use of commercial tobacco, not from traditional, sacred uses.

Because of the issues of mistrust, any prevention effort must be community based. It is “imperative to [have] buy in of the community… plus LONG relationship building,” she says.  Part of the problem is a lack of native specific research which is hindered by tribal sovereignty, health systems and issues of trust.  The Center for American Indian Community Health, where Ms. Braiuca works, is one of the few places in the country doing community based research with Native Americans.

The Wellbound Storytellers blog employs all kinds of technology “oral/audio, video, art,  and written” to get their message across.  Most of the stories are neo-traditional “as in tradition being born but also recalling traditional stories,” Ms. Braiuca clarifies.  This is because traditional healing stories are unique to particular nations and these stories can only be told by certain individuals, elders.  Lamsam-Teresa-1449-5x7-color-qty001

According to Teresa Lamsam, another Wellbound Storyteller, those specific  individuals have a responsibility for the story. “Most of the stories that would be relevant [to healing] are considered to have healing within the telling of them — which is what creates the responsibility for the person who carries the story.  The person who receives the story also has responsibility.  Usually, a ceremony must accompany the story.”

Bringing back the story to heal is the message of the Wellbound Storytellers.  “Storytelling is not just limited to the younger generation listening to the older one, it is perfectly appropriate to flip that script.”  And that is just what these storytellers are trying to do.