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Returning to its roots, Indian Health Service seeks traditional healers

Sydney Akridge, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Cheryl Morales started the medicinal garden at the Aaniiih Nakoda College demonstration farm with only four plants: yarrow, echinacea, plantain and licorice root.

After 10 years, the campus garden within the Fort Belknap reservation in northern Montana now holds more than 60 species that take up almost 30,000 square feet. Morales adds new plants annually. This year, she is testing Oregon grape root and breadroot.

Such plants have been used as medicines for generations by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes who live on the reservation. Echinacea is used to help boost the immune system. Valerian produces a strong sedative that can address nervousness, tension and stress. Licorice root acts as an antihistamine, which treats allergy symptoms.

Like many people in the Fort Belknap community, Morales, 60, is working to teach herself and others the traditional Indigenous health knowledge that was largely lost because of federal policies.

"Our ancestors, did they know they were scientists? No. They were just taking care of their body, taking care of their people," said Morales, who teaches ethnobotany at the college. "All this knowledge, they knew it. They handed it down, and for years and centuries. We took it for granted. And here we are trying to teach ourselves, trying to learn."

Now the Indian Health Service, a federally funded and treaty-promised health care service, is also starting to embrace such knowledge. The Fort Belknap IHS hospital is seeking job applicants for two traditional practitioner positions, offering up to $68,000 a year. While the health service has filled similar positions across the Navajo Nation in the past 15 years, these would be the first IHS positions of their kind in Montana.

 

The move is surprising because the federal government would essentially be paying for medicine men, or women, to help treat IHS patients, despite punishing and maligning such expertise for generations.

But, perhaps in a sign of how much trust needs to be rebuilt and knowledge regained, the IHS has yet to fill either position, despite posting the listings twice since late 2019.

Still, the job announcement itself is causing ripples elsewhere in the state.

D'Shane Barnett, executive director of the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center, said he was able to use the Fort Belknap job listing to create a similar position. The center, which receives funding from IHS but is run independently, created a job description for a part-time traditional healer in late March.

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