A gentle blanket of clouds accompanied us on our way to the annual Fort Thompson Health Fair on the Crow Creek Reservation at the Indian Health Center, just outside of Chamberlain, South Dakota. I had been invited to join the excursion just a day before as part of my REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in Native American Population Health. I’m from Connecticut and love to travel and embrace diverse cultures so this was an easy ‘yes’ for me.
I had done my research the night before the Health Fair so that I could learn about Crow Creek Reservation. I learned that the Crow Creek Reservation lies adjacent to the Big Bend Dam, which was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s as part of the Pick-Sloan Plan authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944. The Pick-Sloan plan was enacted to utilize the water resources of the Missouri River Basin in order to provide a watershed to distant areas affected by drought and also to provide a source of energy through the use of a dam. The resulting reservoir, Lake Sharpe, subsequently created a series of issues for those living nearby causing members of the Crow Creek/Fort Thompson and Lower Brule reservations to become dislocated. The now water-covered fertile lands resulted in the loss of farming potential for these tribes and equally negatively affected economic conditions for those inhabiting this area of land which spans nearly 57,000 acres. The land had been previously used to produce food and medicine for locals. Overall, the size of the Crow Creek reservation was dramatically reduced.
As I entered the Health Fair at IHS, I was greeted by particularly happy and smiling faces as well as lots of color and warm, engaging and delightful personalities. I knew I found my niche and that I was in the right place. It was a very happy day indeed. The sun was shining the most it had in a long while. I was pleasantly surprised by how many attendees (local Fort Thompson residents and guests) were curious to find out what our booth was about. It was personally my first time visiting a Native American community so it was a particularly unique experience for me. The host humored us with his jokes and focused us with his wisdom as he blessed the day ahead and all those who attended that they be in good health. Attendees visited dozens of diverse booths and various buildings such as the Wowasake Wellness Center, which includes a full fitness room. Overall, the fair was information dense and prompted many conversations on diverse topics relating to health and wellness promotion.
In the end, I was left with profound feelings of hope and assurance that our research is moving in the right direction. Aside from political and sovereignty issues related to approving tribal research, I was amazed at how hungry individuals were to learn about and embrace novel topics of health and wellness. Ecstatic smiles thanked and commended the lead researchers at our booth (Char Green-Maximo and Jessica Heinzmann) for the work they do. We must continue to break the stigma of ‘Western’ research in tribal communities by showing our ‘humanness’ and connecting with locals. Forging long-term sustainable and healthy relationships is the foundation to solidarity. Again, it’s the intentions one sets that determines the outcomes. I leave this post with one message, one I was reminded of as we began our trip back to Sioux Falls: to act with Dignity, honor and respect and to embrace those cultures that stand before us and to be inclusive of the values of all individuals especially those of the Native Americans who embody South Dakota.
By: Kelly Bielonko | Eastern Connecticut State University | SURE Student | Griese Lab