Proud of their Menominee tribal culture and history, residents and leaders in Menominee County responded to being ranked 72nd of 72 counties by redoubling efforts to get back to a traditional, healthier community.
The Menominee Indian Reservation, located in northeastern Wisconsin and coterminous with Menominee County, has a population of about 4,200.
The reservation can be seen from outer space because of its thriving forest, a result of world-renowned Menominee sustainable forestry practice.
But other practices have been lost.
“For too long, a lifestyle that wasn’t Menominee became the norm. It wasn’t in us to have all these non-native sugars, we used to live off the land, eating fish, game, maple syrup and wild rice,” said Craig Corn, Menominee Tribal Chairman. “We need to increase cultural awareness and get back to the way we were.”
For brothers Jerry and Wendell Waukau, Tribal Health Administrator and Superintendent of the Menominee Indian School District respectively, the ranking was a chance to look at efforts that were already underway, and build stronger partnerships.
“We looked at teen pregnancy and obesity, for example, and started asking who else can I partner with on this?” Wendell Waukau said.
And then he got to work, creating a spreadsheet organized by the health determinants outlined in the Rankings.
“Wendell brilliantly took the spreadsheet with the categories of determinants to partners and asked, what programs and policies do you have to address this?” said Faye Dodge, Director of Community Health Nursing.
“Now we have tribal housing, Head Start, county extension, the clinic, school district, tribal enterprise, Menominee county human services and the college of the Menominee Nation all working together to reduce childhood obesity,” Dodge added.
For Myrna Warrington, Vice Chairperson of the tribal legislature, the health ranking was upsetting. “I already knew that Indian people die young,” Warrington said. “Look around, very few get to live into their eighties.”
But being a member of the legislature, Warrington said she felt a responsibility to improve living standards in the community. She asked to be on the Health and Family Board and decided to hold a health summit.
One hundred and sixty people attended the summit - which focused on wellness and community engagement efforts - and Warrington wants to make this a regular event.
And the partnerships are beginning to pay off through strengthened policies and programs:
- Schools and elder care facilities have revised menus to reduce fat and sugar
- To combat food insecurity, “smart sacks” with healthy foods go home with more than 300 students every weekend
- The health clinic gives employees longer lunches if they dedicate the time to walking
- Community walks and school walks have been institutionalized
- A school dental chair was added, with in-school appointments
- Apple orchards and community gardens planted with indigenous seeds are being supported in the community
- A program to reduce absenteeism has been instituted by the school, with regular home visits from school staff and support from police and the sheriff
- Community economic development plans have brought a grocery store back to the community
Still many challenges remain.
Through historic Federal policies – such as the forced internment of Indian children in boarding schools and the termination of tribal status – language was lost, ceremonies and spirituality were suppressed and children were stripped of their identities and separated from their families.
This, in turn, contributed to deep poverty, violence and substance abuse in the community.
“We’ve seen the devastation through the last seven generations, but we have a responsibility,” said David “Jonesy” Miller, President of the Menominee Indian School Board.
“It’s about cooperation and reaching out,” Miller added. “If we can get back to the knowledge that our ancestors had about what makes for a healthy system, we could go a long way.”
To partners and other tribes who may also be trying to improve their communities’ health and restore native traditions, Craig Corn says “maec waewaenon,” or many thanks in Menominee.
“I’m a firm believer that we as native people can find solutions in our communities if we take ownership and work with other native people to help each other,” Corn added.
“Our problems didn’t happen overnight and they’re not going to change overnight, but I’m confident that we can make that change.”