MINNEAPOLIS — Every morning, around 30 staff members with the Native American Community Clinic get together in an online virtual huddle.
Before the day’s duties are assigned, Elder in Residence Renee Beaulieu-Banks, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, starts out with a quick blessing – first in Ojibwemowin, and then again in English.
“We have conversations with spirits. We invite them to listen. We thank them, offer them tobacco for our requests and for our gratitude,” Beaulieu-Banks says. “That’s what I do in the morning. I do a request for healing. Not only for ourselves, but for the community and each other.”
Beaulieu-Banks also addresses the spirit of COVID-19, requesting that it have mercy on not only the native people, but everyone. She thanks the spirits for bringing the medical team together for this work, calling them “our warriors.” Staff members at the clinic, which provides health services to members of Minneapolis’ sizable Native American population, overwhelmingly say the introduction helps orient them and starts the day out in a “good way.”
Much of the coverage of Native Americans during the pandemic has focused on hard-hit rural reservations. But 78% of American Indians and Alaska Natives – who were either AI/AN alone or in combination with at least one other race – lived outside reservations or similar areas as of the 2010 Census, many of them in urban areas. Native residents of Minneapolis haven’t been immune to the challenges posed by COVID-19, including the mental health impacts of quarantine, isolation and financial instability.
The Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis has been able to meet their needs not only by shifting online, but through its integration of traditional and spiritual healing into its programming.
“We’ve wanted to amplify the capacity to do integrated cultural healing into the clinic. It seems like it took forever to get here. But we’re finally here,” says NACC CEO Antony Stately, who is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and has familial ties to the Red Lake and White Earth Ojibwe nations. “Elders are helping guide the way.”
According to census data reported by the Urban Indian Health Institute, more than 29,000 people in Minnesota’s Minneapolis–St. Paul area identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone or in combination with any other race in recent years. That includes NACC’s neighboring Little Earth community, an affordable housing complex that claims it has about 1,500 mostly native residents. NACC serves roughly 4,500 patients a year.
Luckily, the clinic had the infrastructure for telehealth already in place before the pandemic. On April 20, two employees tested positive for COVID-19. The clinic had to basically shut down for two weeks, and the staff had to learn how to operate via telehealth – and quickly.
“We were up and running on Day One, and adjusted very fast,” NACC Chief Medical Officer Kari Rabie says. “Given our position and what we do, that’s what we do anyways. We always joke that it’s like building the airplane while you’re flying.”
A bowl of sage sits on the desk inside Renee Beaulieu-Banks’ office at the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis.(Jaida Grey Eagle for USN&WR)
Rabie says that despite national and statewide data showing Native Americans at increased risk for fatal outcomes from COVID-19, from what she’s seeing – at least anecdotally – the urban native community in Minnesota is taking the threat seriously.
“We have lost one of our patients to COVID, and we’ve certainly had others contract the virus, but they locked themselves down. I mean, they’re so careful,” she says. “We’re testing all the time and we maybe have one or two new cases a week. We’re really flattening the curve.”
Rabie says she believes that’s happening with help from elders who are stepping up during these times. That includes Beaulieu-Banks, one of the clinic’s two elders in residence.
In addition to the morning blessings, Beaulieu-Banks also provides spiritual and traditional healing for patients at NACC who want it, incorporating Ojibwe, Dakota and universal native teachings, depending on the person’s background and needs. It’s part of a spiritual-meets-traditional care program that was just getting going as the pandemic hit. Sarah Andersen, NACC’s grants manager and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, says she poured her “heart and soul” into the grant that acquired the necessary funding for the program. The state of Minnesota awarded NACC $250,000, which was twice the amount they were expecting.
“It’s the first grant that I’ve ever seen that allows us to do our traditional, ceremonial practices and spiritual care. And I take that very seriously, because it wasn’t too long ago that we as people couldn’t even practice our ceremonies,” Andersen says.
While some protocols are still being ironed out, spiritual care and traditional native medicines are now integrated with NACC’s existing medical, substance abuse, behavioral health and dental programs. The native treatments include offering tobacco and smudging, which is the burning of sage, sweetgrass and cedar.
“We talk about the teachings: the medicine wheel teachings, the Seven Grandfather Teachings, you know, the spiritual laws. … We smudge together, offering tobacco, saying prayer together and having that spiritual connection,” Beaulieu-Banks says.
Both spiritual and traditional care look a bit different now, as each is being given over the phone or through a Zoom meeting. But Beaulieu-Banks says she’s still seeing positive results from her work with clients.
“There’s transformations that happen all the time and it’s really rewarding,” she says.
Elena Woelfle is an elder patient at NACC and lives north of Minneapolis. Before the pandemic began, she sought Beaulieu-Banks’ spiritual care to help her cope with the loss of her daughter, who died in 2017. “There’s days that it’s better and some days it kind of comes back to you,” Woelfle says.
Due to the pandemic, Woelfe says, it’s now more difficult for people to find others to go to when facing hardships. She says NACC’s spiritual care is providing that connection during these times of social distancing – even if it’s now over the phone. “It helps to talk to another person, especially someone closer to my age,” Woelfle says.
An herb garden lines the perimeter outside of the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis.(Jaida Grey Eagle for USN&WR)
As the pandemic progresses into winter, health experts warn that cases could spike as colder temperatures force more people inside. But a theme of resilience reverberates through NACC staff members and their patients. These are people who have gone through hard times before.
“It may get worse as winter months approach, but I think our people are really resilient. We get through these things,” Beaulieu-Banks says. “There are other epidemics raging through our community. … Try and focus on the healing. Healing is happening. The more we talk about the healing, the more we’re going to see. I think we’re going to come out of this OK. “
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reporting about responses to social problems.