Molly Wendland, Little Shell’s tribal health director, said that the new clinic, initially run by the Indian Health Service, will be open to any member of a tribal nation and that the tribe hopes to eventually expand services to anyone else after it takes over daily operations. IHS will oversee it for at least three years. “Making our community and our members healthy means we have a healthy tribe,” she said. “I wanted this clinic to be comfortable and something new and nice. Our members deserve that.” On a recent day, Wendland smiled as she pointed to the word boozhoo on the clinic’s entrance, welcoming people with the word in the Ojibwe language that means “greetings.” Inside, above the reception desk, is a massive image of Ayabe-Way-We-Tung, also known as Chief Little Shell III, who began pushing the U.S. government for a reservation in 1872. Historical photos of Little Shell people are displayed nearby. Lines of gray and burnt orange take the shape of abstract tepees along the clinic’s walls and floors. Plaques, designed with help from the tribe’s language students, name clinic rooms after animals in Ojibwe, such as waagosh alongside its English translation, “fox.” For rooms Wendland calls “talking rooms,” two chairs face each other in place of an exam table and a doctor’s stool, which she said lends more to a conversation between patient and provider. “It really takes down that power differential,” she said. Upstairs is a small apartment, which Wendland hopes will serve as a place for traveling doctors to stay when they come to offer additional services, such as fittings for hearing aids. Another room on the main floor is the smudge room, where patients can burn plants such as sage in a ceremony to cleanse a person or place. “This is a place to pray and just for families to kind of catch their breath,” Wendland said. “If people are going to have to travel, I want everything they need to be here.” The Little Shell headquarters is in Great Falls, though many members are scattered across Montana, Washington, and beyond. The tribe is still trying to set up ride programs for its members who live in rural parts of Montana. But for those tribal members in central Montana, the clinic’s opening will be an immediate benefit. Sherlie Bolich, 76, of Great Falls said she has sometimes waited for services amid backlogs of patients at other tribes’ facilities. When Bolich’s kids were in high school, she changed jobs for more flexible hours to take her kids on the four-hour round-trip drive to a clinic in Browning. Years later, she made those same trips when her aging mom needed more frequent medical care. Even then, Bolich said, Indian Health Service clinics have felt like safe spaces because Indigenous people are the minority elsewhere, and the costs of health care services outside the federal health service can outpace paychecks — even with insurance. Yet now she’s excited to have something closer, something for her tribe. “With the clinic here, you feel that you’ve got somebody here watching out for your people and all of us,” Bolich said. “My grandchildren will be able to go in and see somebody right away.”
The Little Shell Tribal Health Clinic is slated to open by the end of January, the first dedicated clinic for the tribe that lacks a reservation. “The clinic, it’s going to be the heart of it all,” said one Little Shell member.— Kaiser Health News (@KHNews) January 21, 2022
🔗: https://t.co/u4nqOAQ6vr pic.twitter.com/817hYWXI5o
Little Shell member Rummel also has long traveled beyond Great Falls to places such as Browning for care. Since last fall, she has had spells of vertigo that can make it hard to stand and said she was told she would have to wait until spring to see a doctor. At the Little Shell clinic’s recent open house, Rummel said, she wore a pair of beaded earrings and a traditional ribbon skirt, with pink, blue, purple, yellow, and white ribbons wrapped horizontally down to just above her moccasins. She’s proud to see her tribal nation reflected on the new clinic’s walls. Like many Little Shell members, Rummel said, she grew up in a predominately non-Indigenous culture and is still working to learn the traditions of her people. She immediately noticed the Ojibwe words printed on the clinic’s doors and walls — the first time she had seen her tribe’s language in a permanent spot. “I was so impressed with that, I thought, ‘That’s going to help us learn our language,’” Rummel said. Subscribe to KHN’s free Morning Briefing.
Great news for the Little Shell Tribe! This pandemic has taken a toll on Indian Country, and access to health services couldn't be more important.— Senator Jon Tester (@SenatorTester) January 20, 2022
I'm glad our federal relief funds fast-tracked this clinic, and I'll keep working to expand access to care.https://t.co/iK9yHp6rxF
Katheryn Houghton is Kaiser Health News’ Montana correspondent. She owes her health reporting start to years spent in daily newsrooms, including those of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the Daily Inter Lake. She’s been an Association of Health Care Journalists fellow and a Solutions Journalism Network grantee. She is a graduate of the University of Montana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter @K_Hought.
Note: The story originally appeared on Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national health policy news service. KHN is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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