by Krystal Spring
Nearly two weeks ago, Lena Belcourt stood at the entrance of her tribe's sacred land in the Bear Paw Mountains - 7,500 acres of forested hills and winding streams in the Pah-nah-to Recreational Area, the land of the Chippewa Cree in north-central Montana. In her right hand she held the hand of Naida Glavish, a Maori woman from New Zealand. The women stood facing one another, foreheads pressed together, noses touching, excited to embark on a journey together.
The women's actions are called "hngi," a Maori welcome that symbolizes the "sharing of the breath of life." Belcourt was participating in her tribe's welcoming ceremony for the Maori - the indigenous people of New Zealand. And though the women had just met face to face for the first time, the two say their tribes have shared a common thread for generations.
"It's a real connection," Belcourt said. "There is a love, respect and admiration between our people because of the strength and values of our tribes."
Several members of the Maori tribe spent the past two weeks in Rocky Boy, participating in a summit on the health and well-being of the Chippewa Cree and Maori people. Both tribes have disproportionately high mortality rates from diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and alcohol and substance abuse.
"Our challenges as indigenous people are the same, from our relationships with our separate governments to our health issues," said Glavish, who works as the chief adviser for the Oakland District Health Board in New Zealand.
The Maoris' history seems to be a near mirror image of the Chippewa and Cree. Both tribes were colonized by white people, signed treaties, and lost much of their native lands. Both have adapted to colonization while trying to remain a sovereign nation and maintain their own unique cultures, rich in song, dance and craft. And now both the Chippewa Cree and the Maori are plagued by seemingly preventable diseases, as they try to strike a balance with government agencies that don't seem to understand or acknowledge their problems.
"The biggest discovery here is the similarities of indigenous races of people who have been colonized and the impact of that on every aspect of our lives as indigenous people," Glavish said.
The two-week-long cultural exchange titled "Dancing on the Rim of the World - Weaving the Threads of Indigenous Destinies," gave the two tribes the opportunity to lay a foundation forming a partnership in health advocacy.
"We've learned so much from them," Belcourt said. "They have a culture and community-based approach to health care that's amazed us. The concept, values and foundation of their plan is exactly what we've been trying to do. They've provided us with tools we can use to help us implement that type of a health care program here."
As a population group the Maori have, on average, the poorest health status of any group in New Zealand. For many Maoris, the major deficiency in health practices is "taha wairu" - the spiritual dimension of health. To combat growing health concernts, the Maoris have been successful in their attempts to integrate a set of cultural value guidelines, called "tikanga," into their country's health care policy manuals. According to Glavish, "tikanga" includes the cultural and spiritual values of that which is correct and just. The new health manuals are equipped with guidelines on food, prayer and treatment methods that follow the cultural boundaries of the Maori people.
TePuea Winiata, senior analyst of the Ministry of Health in Auckland, New Zealand said the new health care value system has helped their tribal members receive more effective care.
"Crossing cultural boundaries in health care can actually add to the trauma for a Maori patient," Winiata said. "Making health care improvements that follow cultural philosophies is leading to better outcomes in hospitals."
Winiata and her New Zealand comrades toured the health clinic at Rocky Boy last week. The visit gave the Maoris the opportunity to see first-hand how health care is administered on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
"The similarities in health care needs between the two tribes is striking," Dr. James Eastlick, CEO of the Rocky Boy Health Board said. "Like the Maoris, I firmly believe that the patient needs to have a spiritual and mental commitment to their health for it to be effective."
Belcourt said the Maori vision and implementation of quality health care that supports the overall well-being of indigenous people will help her tribe work-up a health care model that will work on the Rocky Boy's Reservation.
"Our current health care system doesn't work. Our people are not getting better," Belcourt said. "Our cultural and spiritual values have to be a part of everything we do. It would makes sense that our health care delivery approach should follow that."
The Chippewa Cree discussed how a lack of adequate health care funding on the reservation meant the health needs of many tribal members could not be met - a statement that was not well received with the Maoris.
"We natives have rights, not needs, rights!" Glavish exclaimed during a discussion on tribal health leadership. "Health is a right, education is a right."
The homelands of the Chippewa Cree and the Maori people are located thousands of miles apart. But tribal members says the physical distance between their tribes has never stood in the way of their spiritual connection.
"We feel that we are past relatives being reunited," said Winiata, a member of the Maori Ngati Ranginui Tribe. "We have a spiritual connection that's existed for years. I think we all feel our paths have crossed before."
A feeling echoed by members of the Chippewa Cree.
"I've seen my community open up to the Maori like I've never seen them open up to any other group of people," Belcourt said. "We've formed an everlasting relationship."
Kelly Eagleman is the self-governance coordinator for the Rocky Boy Health Board. He participated in several discussions throughout the cultural exchange and said the tribes' connection has been apparent throughout the entire process.
"One day we were in a circle, talking and praying. Sitting there, you could feel the spiritual energy within the circle," Eagleman said. "It was such an intense feeling. There's a deep connection between our tribes."
Eagleman said it's comforting to be able to relate to another indigenous people, whose history is so similar to his own tribe.
"They are a conquered people, just like us," Eagleman said. "Our relationship to our government and how are government perceives us is similar. Our status within our countries is the same."
Members of the Chippewa Cree tribe and the Maori said they hope the two-week cultural exchange will strengthen the tribal thread of the two groups, "linking a common past and weaving the threads into the future."
The Maoris were thrilled to have an opportunity to participate in the Sun Dance festival with their new friends, and hope they can return the favor sometime in the future.
"We are so appreciative that we've had the opportunity to be here and participate in their sacred ceremonies," Glavish said. "The invitation will be reciprocated when they journey to meet us."
Members of the Chippewa Cree said they plan to visit the Maori in New Zealand, but they haven't pinned down exactly when the second cultural exchange will take place.
"This meeting feels like the beginning of a wonderful journey," Winiata said. "We've established a wonderful relationship that will continue on."
The Maoris and the Chippewa Cree will wrap up their cultural exchange today at a closing ceremony beginning at 1 p.m. at the Pah-nah-to Recreational Area. The public is invited to attend the ceremony and community feed.