Wise Up: Ways to keep your brain in shape for a lifetime

A version of this article was published in Yoga Journal in August 2010.

As the years go by and you mature, your mind continues to grow and change in positive ways. That may surprise you, because much media attention has been on what can go wrong with the brain over time, says Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), the longest-running research of its kind.

But meanwhile, he points out, most people won’t ever fight dread diseases of the mind, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, but will simply continue to support their mellowing brains. In fact, you have plenty to look forward to, as your grey matter continually makes up for — and even improves on — youthful abilities.

That’s because the body has an intrinsic ability to compensate for losses, says Ferrucci. “While certain parts of the brain shrink as we age, other often-adjacent areas grow. As a result, you may lose some vocabulary or have a less-perfect memory, but you will improve your abilities to combine words and divergent ideas and to create new concepts.”

Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian practice encompassing herbs, food, and lifestyle changes, espouses similar ideas, says Carrie Demers, M.D, medical director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. “As you age, something Ayurveda calls air energy increasingly pervades your body. If this energy isn’t grounded, it can affect body and mind, making you weak, senile, and ill. But if it’s stabilized by good social relationships and healthy daily routines, it contributes to a wonderful expansion of your capacities.” The result, says Demers, is that you become more creative and able to handle complex ideas as the years advance.

Ferrucci compares the human mind to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, considered technically faultless as a young man. “When Horowitz was older, he was less perfect but understood the music so much more; as a result, he better conveyed its emotion and meaning. Similarly, you may have less cognitive skills in later life, but what you have you use more effectively.”

            Here are easy ways you can stay grounded and keep your mind performing like a virtuoso. As ancient sages and modern scientists agree, wisdom is time’s gift.

Basic training for the brain
• Regular physical activity is your most powerful weapon for protecting every aspect of health, according to Ferrucci: “Exercise’s good effects are so far-reaching, improving the nervous system and metabolism, lowering inflammation, and much more.”

• Eating right safeguards your grey matter two ways. A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruits, fermented foods like miso, and plant proteins gives your nervous system the nutrients it needs for optimal function, says Demers. It’ll also help you maintain a healthy weight, which, in turn, safeguards your brain. “Obesity in earlier years seems connected to later dementia,” warns Ferrucci.

• Meaningful engagement with others — via traveling, volunteering, and more — keeps your mind in shape, too. Research tells us social activities activate brain regions that are eventually used for any necessary compensation, Ferrucci says.

Stand on your head
Long-time yoga teacher Patty Townsend, of Yoga Center Amherst, in Massachusetts, observes that headstand is the quintessential asana for keeping the mind clear, calm, and focused. “It creates a profound coordination of body and mind.”

Here’s how it works from science’s point of view: Headstand activates receptors in the neck that are part of the parasympathetic, or ‘relax and renew,’ nervous system (as opposed to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system), says Chris Streeter, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, who has researched effects of yoga on the brain. “In headstand, your body tells your brain ‘everything’s ok.’ The brain responds by helping your body optimize mood and heart rate.”

One headstand now and then won’t do it, though. Townsend says the good effects come from years of practice leading up to headstand, then the continual regular practice of it.

Think this, not that
Negativity is powerful — and dangerous — warns Kayla Feder, a Berkeley, California, Aikido sensei who incorporates yoga when training her students. “If you focus on negative thoughts, they feed on themselves in what becomes a truly vicious cycle. They take over.”

Science backs her up, showing how such thinking attacks the brain. Feelings like anger, hate, and resentment produce stress, causing your adrenals to release the hormone cortisol, explains clinical psychologist Jeffrey M. Greeson, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center. The cortisol then shrinks the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and emotions, causing more negativity.

            The solution, says Feder, is to make positive thinking a habit. “Develop a pattern of telling yourself patiently: ‘Ok, that was a negative idea, let’s replace it with a positive one.’ Avoid beating yourself up about slipping into negativity, though, as you’ll make matters worse instead of better.”

Sit on a cushion
Meditation is another path to healthy, positive thinking, says Feder: “Sitting every day gives you time to be peaceful with yourself.”

Greeson confirmed meditation’s power when he analyzed many scientific papers on mindfulness practice for a 2009 article in Complementary Health Practice Review. Those who do this meditation (which he defines as cultivating nonjudgmental and compassionate awareness of the present moment) have increased electrical activity in brain areas associated with attention, concentration, and the ability to regulate emotions. Their minds are more nimble, their abilities to focus and to recall are better, and they have greater wellbeing. And that’s just the beginning. Study participants had stronger immune systems and better sleep patterns, among other physiological benefits.

Researchers have also looked into Tibetan Buddhism, Kripalu yoga, Kundalini yoga, transcendental meditation, and more, says Sara Lazar, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. “The data on good outcomes is definitely out there, and work continues to be done.”

Welcome the sun — and the sunshine vitamin
Vitamin D — dubbed the sunshine vitamin because it’s created in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight, as well as absorbed from foods — doesn’t just help metabolize calcium and keep bones strong. According to a 2009 Current Psychiatry Reports article, it also helps prevent mental illness and bolsters decision-making skills. But 90% of Americans have less in their bloodstream than they need, thanks to slathering on sunscreen, among other factors, says the CDC.

            You can pick up some Vitamin D by consuming fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, you should also take it as a supplement, says Ferrucci, who calls it the one dietary add-on everyone should consume. He suggests 400 to 800 milligrams daily, depending on age and sex, of the form called D3, though he adds that some experts say the other form, D2, is also fine. Check with your practitioner for the type and amount you should take.

You can also spend time outdoors without sunscreen during non-peak hours, suggests Demers. Just 10 minutes of sunlight daily can give you the D you need, according to Natural Standard, a Somerville, Massachusetts, institute that evaluates scientific data on integrative-medicine therapies.

And if you do yoga’s sun salutation while you’re outside, you’ll do more than increase blood levels of this essential vitamin, according to Demers. “Ayurvedic tradition says that to heal we must connect with nature, which is imbued with spiritual consciousness and resides within us as well as outside us,” she says. “So, when you do the sun salutation, you’re not bowing to a fiery ball in the sky. You’re connecting its life-giving force to your inner sun, in your solar plexus, which generates mental clarity and other benefits.”

Try an Ayurvedic tonic
Brahmi is a tonic herb long used to support mind health in Ayurvedic medicine, according to Demers. Modern research, including a study in the 2006 Indian Journal of Psychiatry, confirms this ancient remedy. “Brahmi is calming, but not sedative, so inspires the flow of ideas,” says Demers.

Chyavanprash is another Ayurvedic tonic Demers recommends for its effect on over-all health, including the brain, and because it’s just plain yummy mixed into warm milk or tea or spread on a cracker. “The original recipe, devised thousands of years ago, has been lost,” she says, “but this jam always includes sweetened amla fruit [also called amlaki or Indian gooseberry], ghee, and a range of beneficial herbs.”

India’s National Botanical Research Institute found in 2007 that chyavanprash helps control aging problems including memory loss and lowered disease resistance. Its Vitamin C and other antioxidants are likely the key to its power, says a 2007 paper in the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis.

Tonic herbs (or mixtures) are generally safe because natural materials reinforce health through complex actions that buffer each other. “Nourishing herbs are like superfoods,” Demers says. (In contrast, the pharmaceuticals most of us are most familiar with are powerful, precisely targeted molecules that act via one biochemical pathway, potentially causing side effects.) That said, Demers adds, it’s best consult a knowledgeable practitioner before starting any therapy.

Fountain of youth
What’s the secret to long-term mental clarity? Ferrucci and his BLSA colleagues are enrolling 500 extremely healthy people over age 85 in a new study that will zero in on how these folks have achieved such robust older years. “We’ll examine the perfect outcome: not just more years, but getting to your nineties while being functional, social, and enjoying all the possibilities of life,” he says.

It will take years for results to come in, but in the meantime, how should we approach all the good things we’re doing — exercising, eating right, doing our sun salutations, and more?

Ferrucci knows the answer to that question already: “Everything should be done with joy.” 

c. Stephanie Woodard.

Lost children’s annual memorial march: Event called for reform of Iowa’s parental-rights laws

Published in Indian Country Today in November 2010.

Restoration of parental rights was the theme of the Eighth Annual Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children, organized each year for the day before Thanksgiving by Four Directions Community Center, a Sioux City nonprofit. In preparing for the event, the group’s executive director, Frank LaMere, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, encouraged participation by Native people who have had children taken from them by the Iowa child-welfare system or because of involvement with the courts.

About 200 responded to his call over the course of November 24, a blustery day with freezing rain that made the start of the march — across the Missouri River bridge that connects South Sioux City, Nebraska, with Sioux City, Iowa — a challenge for young and old. “We cross the bridge because many of Iowa’s Native people came here from Nebraska in search of a better life,” explained Four Directions program director Judy Yellowbank, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “Instead, they faced the breakup of their families.”

“The wind and icy conditions on the bridge were particularly difficult this year, but that part of the march is always a test of our resolve,” said LaMere. “We must make that crossing, though, because we are renewing a commitment to our forebears, who believed they’d improve their lives by coming here.”

Marchers’ other stops included the Woodbury County Courthouse, where officials preside over what Yellowbank described as the rupture of Native families, and the Trosper-Hoyt County Services Building, where state department of human services offices are located.

The day’s events also included a rally and press conference, at which a proclamation from Iowa’s Governor Chet Culver was read. He praised the efforts of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs, which has joined Four Directions in condemning disparities in state agencies’ treatment of Native people. Both groups have called for improvements, including enforcement of the Indian Child Welfare Act and preparation of legislation to restore parental rights to those who have lost them but are now in a position to reunite their families.

ICWA appears to be flouted to an alarming degree in the county surrounding Sioux City, which has a relatively large Native population. As a result, Native parents and grandparents there are losing custody of children to foster care and adoption at what many call a disproportionate rate. Preston Daniels, head of Iowa’s human rights department, under whose aegis the Native American commission operates, has called the problem a major one and has spoken out in favor of parental-rights restoration.

LaMere described the eight-year history of the march as an odyssey, starting with suspicion and obstruction on the part of the non-Native community. The first year, for example, a sheriff tried to stop the marchers from entering the courthouse. Yet that day also saw progress: a judge invited LaMere and others to come into his chambers and talk about their grievances. “We began to build a bridge between the Native and non-Native communities at that moment,” recalled LaMere. “Now, eight years later, we have a better relationship with the state department of human services and the governor is praising what we’ve done and talking about its importance. These are all breakthroughs.”

He also noted that the parental-rights restoration effort, if successful, would help all children and families, not just Native ones. “We Indians are bold enough to do this, and the state of Iowa may be bold enough to pass parental-rights legislation. If so, life will improve in all communities, not just ours.”

The day ended with a memorial midday meal at Four Directions’ Sioux City building. LaMere said no one forgets that the entire event is a memorial occasion. “We pray together several times throughout the day. And when we get to Four Directions, we have chairs set up with star quilts, food offerings, and toys for the Native children who died after being taken from their families. Their prayers, and those of the hundreds or even thousands of other children who’ve asked the Creator to let them remain with their families, are very powerful. They are part of the grand design that brought us all here.”

The design was apparent throughout the day, said LaMere. Graduates of Four Directions’ parenting classes reported that they were out of the health-and-human services thanks to the courses, and the family of a boy who’d been adopted away from his Native mother saw a television program showing her marching and carrying a poster with his baby picture. The adoptive mother and son called Four Directions to make contact with the biological mother, who called the reconnection a miracle. 

c. Stephanie Woodard.

Alaska Native Corporations tackle criticism: An interview with Aaron Schutt, chief operations officer of Doyon, Limited

Published in Indian Country Today in December 2010. 

Three of the 13 regional Alaska Native Corporations got together two years ago to propose improvements to ANC participation in the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) federal sole-source contracting program, said Aaron M. Schutt, Athabaskan, senior vice president and chief operating officer of one of the firms, Doyon, Limited. Joining Doyon were Cook Inlet Region, Inc., and Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. The contracting program has now come under fire, with Senator Claire McCaskill (D.-Missouri) submitting legislation that would limit the size of contracts ANCs receive to those allowed individual small businesses.

The reform coalition had suggested the changes to prevent just such attacks, said Schutt, who is an attorney. “We believe improvements in three areas — increased competition, greater accountability and enforcement of existing rules — will strengthen ANCs’ participation in the program. Had these reforms occurred earlier, they might have kept Alaska Native Corporations out of newspapers and Congressional hearings.”

           Collectively, the three firms have about 35,000 shareholders. Each company works in some combination of oil-field, information-technology and utilities services; petroleum refining; engineering; construction; real estate; financial investment; and other sectors.

Indian Country Today: Do the three coalition corporations use 8(a) contracting?
Aaron M. Schutt: We’ve all used sole-source 8(a) contracting — Arctic Slope for 10 years, Doyon since 2005, and Cook Inlet beginning most recently — and want to continue to do so. We’ve also utilized competitive 8(a) contracts and full and open competition in the federal market. In addition, we each have business that is outside the federal arena. If Senator McCaskill succeeds in removing the provision that presumes Alaska Native Corporations’ subsidiaries to be small disadvantaged corporations, almost all of the regional ANCs, including our three companies, and most of the 200-plus village ANCs would be too large to participate. It would devastate our companies and Native communities overnight.

ICT: Senator McCaskill’s latest press release says ANCs have failed to employ Alaska Native people. Is she correct?
AMS: Doyon currently employs about 500 shareholders and other Native people; doing so is a mission, particularly for projects in our homeland. Our board of directors and shareholders hold us accountable for this. They are proud of our success and continually push us to do more. Seeing our drum logo around town and knowing community members work for us is important to them.
That said, the 8(a) program does not require any business do this. For example, women-owned firms are not required to hire only women, or other minority-owned firms only minorities. This criticism is unfair because it is not a program requirement.

ICT: What about the $615 the senator says is all ANC shareholders receive annually?
AMS: Our coalition calls for more transparency in reporting benefits. However, that number appears to be meaningless, and I don’t know how Senator McCaskill computed it. The data she requested from 19 ANCs in 2009 included our revenue and profits without regard to their source. The real issue is whether shareholders believe ANCs are providing adequate benefits for them; this is a question for them.
Turning to Senator McCaskill’s calculations: her figures appear to aggregate corporations at different stages of business maturity, including startups that are still reinvesting and won’t distribute dividends for a few years. In these cases, she ignores the value to shareholders of building a new company. She also seems to have combined revenue streams that include not just sole-source 8(a) contracts, but also competitive 8(a) contracts, federal contracts awarded through full and open competition and non-government-related business. For instance, half of Doyon’s business is unrelated to government contracting. Finally, ANC shareholder employment and training programs, such as Doyon’s, are valuable, but don’t appear in the $615 data point.

ICT: What about ANCs being used as pass-throughs to other firms — another accusation?
AMS: Unfortunately, this debate has been reduced to sound bites. Yes, cases of fraud, waste and abuse have occurred, but they’re few and far between, and some very old cases are cited repeatedly — as though they’d just happened. We all know the 8(a) program has rules about matters such as the amount of a project a prime contractor must execute, and that’s why we believe the rules should be enforced properly, so that those of us who obey them are not subjected to the wrath of a Senator McCaskill.
Perception of this situation may have been exacerbated after 9/11, when the war on terror, then the war in Iraq, meant the government used ANCs to get many projects underway more speedily than the more slow-moving competitive process allowed. Billions of dollars in contracts were written quickly, which brings up the other half of the puzzle. Are federal officials being smart when procuring contracts? We all need to be partners and work well together.

ICT: Senator McCaskill told the Washington Post Native people should receive “direct payments” as a substitute for having their own businesses. Is that idea acceptable?
AMS: I think I share the overwhelming disgust in Alaska and Indian country for that comment. Handouts don’t work. Congress created ANCs in 1971 to provide self-determination to Alaska Native People. Our goal is to be economic engines for our people. The SBA lifted the ceiling on Native businesses’ contract amounts because our benefits flow to large numbers of disadvantaged people, not just one or a few entrepreneurs, as in the case of an individually owned small company. As a result, Native enterprises nationwide have used this program to serve those who depend on them, while delivering value to the government and the taxpayers. That’s why we feel the program should be improved, rather than destroyed.

ICT: The proposed legislation restricts Alaskan and Hawaiian firms’ participation. Are the continental-48 tribes next?
AMS: Senator McCaskill hasn’t engaged in meaningful dialogue with ANCs, so we don’t fully understand why she’s targeting Native companies or the eventual scope of her efforts. If I were advising tribes and tribal organizations, as I used to do, I’d tell them this legislation could spill over into their businesses. We at Doyon, Arctic Slope, and Cook Inlet share goals with Indian country and Native Hawaiian Organizations. We want this program to be more widely available, and we want dialogue with our cousins across the country. 

c. Stephanie Woodard.

Changes to the SBA’s 8(a) program: An interview with Lance Morgan

By Stephanie Woodard

Originally published in Indian Country Today in November 2010.

Tribal economies have already been impacted by recent restrictions placed on sole-source federal contracts they obtain through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, according to Lance Morgan, chairman of the board of the Native American Contractors Association and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., a successful company owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, of which Morgan is a member. “Contracts Ho-Chunk was negotiating are already in question,” said Morgan.

           The 8(a) contracts — for tribally owned firms, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) and Native Hawaiian Organizations — make up 1.3% of sole-source federal contracts, mostly originating from the Defense Department. Senate Armed Services Committee member Senator Claire McCaskill (D.-Missouri) supported the initial set of restrictions, via soon-to-be-implemented Section 811 of a defense appropriations bill.

            Now, McCaskill has introduced legislation that would further limit contracts for ANCs to the amounts handled by individual small businesses. Here’s what Morgan had to say:

Indian Country Today: The new bill was not as sweeping as feared.
Lance Morgan: Yes, by focusing on ANCs, she seeks to divide and conquer. She’ll eventually come after the rest of us, though.

ICT: How does a federal no-bid contract work?
LM: The term “no-bid” does not occur in the federal lexicon. It’s pejorative, a code word if you will, used to make these legal agreements sound shady. The correct language is “sole source,” and it involves a federal contracting official checking with the local SBA about the proposed contractor’s past performance, then negotiating the total cost and profit margin. An experienced contracting official knows what things cost. It’s not like a tribe says, “Give us a million dollars.” There are no secrets in this process.

ICT: Why are some federal contracts structured this way?
LM: The government may need a company with special expertise or may need to move quickly. Bidding out a project can take a year; a large military contract may take several years. However, let’s say a natural disaster occurs, or water must be delivered to soldiers; in cases like these, the government looks to faster-moving sole-source contracting.

ICT: Some ANCs have been criticized for working with non-Native firms. Doesn’t that validate criticism that Native enterprises may be “pass-throughs” to non-Native companies?
LM: That’s another code word. Partnering is the standard in federal contracting. Large contractors typically bring in small firms to make highly specialized contributions. Small contractors grow by developing relationships and collaborating, which helped us expand at Ho-Chunk, Inc. Native enterprises are being criticized for adhering to the industry standard. That said, whoever’s directing a project executes the bulk of it for regulatory and financial reasons: the SBA requires the prime contractor to do at least 50% of the work, and the narrow profit margin on federal sole-source contracts — just a few percent — means you can’t make money unless you do as much of the project as possible. There’s no incentive to give the work away.

ICT: There’s also been criticism about hiring of non-Native employees.
LM: Native firms can use primarily tribal members for projects performed on their homelands, such as manufacturing. But for a service contract, you go where the government needs you. You can’t pack up 100 tribal members and ship them to a distant locale. No non-Native company is required to use only employees who reside around its headquarters. Only Native companies are held to this standard.

ICT: Non-Native employees — notably some ANC executives — appear to include bad actors, who’ve bilked companies.
LM: So go after the bad actors, which the SBA is already doing through increased oversight.

ICT: How did consultation with the tribes unfold over Section 811, which affects all three types of tribal groups — in Hawaii, Alaska and the Continental 48?
LM: In the case of 811, which requires Native businesses to get additional approvals for contracts above $20 million, consultation occurred after the law was passed. The tribes never knew the change was coming. It affected all of Indian country and was subject to no public debate. I think the consultation opened some eyes but essentially was meaningless. It’s no wonder 811 was added behind closed doors: though the language looks generic, it applies only to Native people, so is race-based.

ICT: Section 811 doesn’t stop Native enterprises from getting big contracts.
LM: The additional hurdles will be difficult for some Native companies. And if $20 million sounds like a lot, remember these may be multi-year projects with tiny profit margins. Again, the hurdles are race-based. They ensure tribes never play with the big boys. Twenty years ago, mainstream contractors would throw us a bone, give us menial jobs. Now, they may be our subcontractors, and they don’t like it.

ICT: How did the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska get into the 8(a) program?
LM: The federal government talked us into it. At Ho-Chunk, Inc., we spent $700,000 and three years to get our company up and running. Now, they’re pulling the rug out from under us. The Forest County Potawotami, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Navajos, the Cherokees and others are in similar positions. Other tribes were considering contracting, but now can’t, because of 811. The tribes are hardly living it up, you know. We have incredible problems to solve.

ICT: Senator McCaskill has claimed she’s on your side, both in the matter of 811 and the new bill to restrict ANCs.
LM: If she cared about Native people, she would not destroy the economies we’ve built. She scoured the universe of Native contracting for problems and chose the weakest opponent. She isn’t scrutinizing any big mainstream players, some of whom have horrific problems, including Boeing, a big contributor of hers. I see her complaints about ANCs as a smokescreen for eventually eliminating the entire tribal program. And frankly, I don’t see widespread support in this country for making the poorest Americans even poorer.

ICT: She’s said she’s for “direct payments” to the tribes in place of businesses.
LM: That bill will never be introduced. We don’t want it anyway. We want to fix our problems ourselves.

ICT: What’s next?
LM: Senator McCaskill is a bully, and everyone knows you stand up to a bully. We’re going to fight her on this one.

Election reflections: Julie Garreau talks about her recent run for the South Dakota Senate

Published in Indian Country Today in November 2010.

Julie Garreau, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, didn’t win the state senate seat she sought in the last election, but she enjoyed running. “I think I would have been a great representative for District 18, but I learned a lot during the race — about politics, campaigning, getting out the vote, and the Democratic party. I was able to shed light on issues our people are concerned about, including the Indian Child Welfare Act and protecting our sovereignty. In a recent meeting of Democratic candidates to discuss the election, I was frank about what we could have done better.”

In the end, Garreau said, “I’m a better person for the experience.” In fact, she added, laughing, “District 28 lost, but I gained tremendously.”

Canvassing was her favorite part of the process. Outgoing and an optimist by nature, Garreau found going door-to-door a wonderful experience. “I loved meeting people. Children became our little guides in each community. I also noticed that in areas we visited, we saw higher voter turnout than in ones we didn’t get to.” That said, the size of District 28 — most of the northwestern quadrant of the state — and the thinly spread population made reaching voters generally difficult.

            Four changes Garreau will support for the next election (whether she’s the candidate or someone else, she said): First, early voting must be offered throughout Native American communities, just as it occurs in predominantly white communities. Second, the candidate should begin working on his or her race at least a year before the election (Garreau had just 7 months). Third, tribal and state/federal elections should share precincts, so people don’t have to make two long trips to vote.

Finally, Native people should request the pollworkers they’d like to see running their precincts, as they’re permitted to do. “We at Dewey County Democrats [a Cheyenne River-area Democratic club] didn’t know we could submit a list of workers we wanted, and that might have helped provide an atmosphere at our polls that was more welcoming to Native people.”

            She also realized in the course of her run that voter apathy was not one of the causes of low turnout on Cheyenne River. “Relevance is the issue. People here aren’t apathetic; they just don’t see that the results of state and federal elections affect their lives. In fact, those results have a lot of bearing on us. For example, any redistricting the legislature does as a follow-up to the 2010 U.S. Census could impact us a great deal. So, voter education is needed to increase turnout.”

            Garreau is proud she ran a clean, positive race and stood up when her people needed her. “I’m so thankful to my team and everyone who came out and voted, and I was so proud to be endorsed by Senator Johnson, INDN’s List, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock. I always tell our young people that it’s important to get involved, and my campaign was a way to show I meant it.”

            Now she has another message for the youth of Cheyenne River and Standing Rock, some of whom have told her they’re sad she lost. “I say, ‘No, don’t be sad; the important thing is that you care and will very soon be voting yourself. We need youngsters who will become organizers and be involved in the community.’” It’s not about the race, she told them, it’s about the work.

            Garreau has no lack of work these days. The award-winning organization she founded 22 years ago — Cheyenne River Youth Project, with its children’s and teen centers, family services program, international volunteer program, and 2.5-acre vegetable garden — is in full swing, getting ready for the Christmas toy drive, which provides 4 to 6 gifts each for 1,000-some children.

            “I feel blessed. I love this state, and I love its people. The work begins now. Let’s start.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.

Superhero Artist: He looks like a mild-mannered illustrator, but he takes on comic-book monsters and villains

Published in Indian Country Today in October 2010.

Throughout Indian country, people know of Patrick Rolo’s illustrations for the Eagle Books series from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has distributed some 2 million of the children’s books, which help Native kids prevent diabetes by means of proper nutrition, exercise, and traditional beliefs.

But Rolo, Bad River Band of Ojibway, wears other hats as well — including newspaper and magazine illustrator, painter and comic-book artist. He’s been a penciller (the person who draws the figures that’ll be colored in) for comics such as “Mortal Kombat,” “Iron Man” and, most recently, the “All-New Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe A-Z.”

Rolo’s first comic was “Nightmares on Elm Street” in 1991. The self-trained artist was 23 and had been submitting his work to comic-book editors and showing his portfolio at comic-book convention talent searches. “I’d been getting rejections for a year and a half, then this job came through. Looking back, I’d say my craft wasn’t really there yet, but I got the job on the strength of my storytelling ability.”

He worked on expanding his drawing skills and still does to this day. As a result, he can tackle any superhero that comes his way, along with jobs illustrating magazine and newspaper articles, sketching courtroom trials, and executing a set of large paintings for a casino restaurant. “To survive as an artist, you must be able to take on different types of work.”

In October, Rolo showed his creations at pop culture’s coolest annual convention: Comic-Con in New York City, which attracted close to 100,000 attendees — many costumed as Marvel and DC Comics superheroes, Manga figures, Star Wars characters, and more. Rolo was there to show the latest in Eagle Books offerings, along with his collaborators, including writer and public-health specialist Teresa Lofton, from Westat Atlanta, a CDC contractor (shown below with Rolo), and Lemyra DeBruyn, the deputy and field director
for the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program.

            The cheery, vibrant Eagle Books started out as four volumes for young children, with little kids as the central figures. Georgia Perez, a former health worker at Nambe Pueblo, was their originator, and Lisa Fifield, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin’s Black Bear Clan, was one of the illustrators (along with Rolo). Now Eagle Books have expanded into a brand, with an exhibition of the artwork that’s traveling nationwide, Native-science flashcards, DVDs and downloadable videos, curriculum guides, and more. Native communities have translated the materials into traditional languages, adding their own cultural concepts to the text and making the books part of language-preservation efforts.

“The federal government paid for this, so everything is in the public domain,” said Lofton. “Communities can use the materials as they see fit.”

At Comic-Con, the team introduced “Coyote and the Turtle’s Dream,” the first of a series for older children, Rolo said. “We took the little kids from the first four books and grew them up. Now they are 10 to 12 years old and appear in illustrated chapter books appropriate for that age. We have a spin-off graphic novel and a comic book — “Mammoth Boy” — in the works.”

The materials are based on reservation discussions in which elders and officials said, “We want to see ourselves in the books,” according to Lofton. As she and Rolo work, feedback from Native kids helps refine the concepts. Issues confronted by next chapter book’s heroine will include bullying, something children said they wanted help with.

It’s all about listening, Rolo and Lofton agreed. For example, “Mammoth Boy” was originally the fictional favorite comic of the young protagonists of “Coyote and the Turtle’s Dream.” When Lofton and Rolo confessed to children that it wasn’t a real comic, but rather something they made up as part of the plot, the kids were so disappointed, the creative team decided to make it real and added it to the list of upcoming publications.

Rolo enjoys working on a project that’s so positive. “It’s all about going in the right direction — parents reading books to young children, older children developing their reading skills, and everyone encouraged to live healthy lives.”

DeBruyn agreed. “I love the stories and the beautiful, colorful art. Using these wonderful media for meaningful health messages is a joy.”

Where does Rolo see himself years down the road? “Probably painting more. Someday, I’d like the luxury to just be an artist. Exactly what I’d paint I can’t say right now. It’s in the act of painting that you find your ideas. I’ll know when I get there.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo of Patrick Rolo and Teresa Lofton by Stephanie Woodard; Mortal Kombat cover courtesy of Patrick Rolo; reproduction of Rolo's Eagle Books drawing courtesy of the CDC.

New directions for Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2010.

Already at the center of a web of activity that encompasses much of Woodbury County, Iowa, and the surrounding region, Four Directions Community Center is poised for growth. A new alliance with Siouxland Human Investment Partnerships, a 12-year-old area nonprofit, will develop Four Directions’ capabilities, said SHIP’s director, Jim France.

The center’s building near downtown Sioux City is already bustling with activity. As people arrive — for parenting classes, AA gatherings, Lakota language instruction, domestic violence education, meetings of the policy group Community Initiative for Native Children and Families, a University of Iowa college-awareness program for youth, regular meetings with state officials, community gatherings, including wakes and funerals, and much more — the first person they’re likely to encounter is administrative assistant Liz White, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, who presides over the comings and goings with a grandma’s affability and authority.

White also heads up the organization’s volunteer effort, which results in hundreds of hours of work donated monthly, and directs countless daily phone calls from community members seeking help and information to the organization’s executive director, Frank LaMere, Winnebago, and program manager, Judy Yellowbank, Winnebago.

            Four Directions’ major annual event is the Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children, held each year on the day before Thanksgiving. Walkers proceed from South Sioux City, Nebraska, across a bridge over the Missouri River to Sioux City, Iowa, calling attention to Native children caught in the child-welfare system, including several who died while placed with foster or adoptive families.

The relationship with SHIP will make possible more work on behalf of Four Directions’ constituency. SHIP offers its partners — which focus on child welfare, health, education, job training, juvenile justice and more — access to nonprofit status and infrastructure, according to France. “We already have our 501(c)3, and we have grant-writing and administrative capacity, so groups we work with needn’t hire lawyers and other professionals to set this up themselves.” When a group would benefit from networking with another agency, SHIP can make that happen, said France.

LaMere agreed. “Working with SHIP means we’ll have increased ability to take care of our own. It’s high time.”

Recent events at Four Directions included a two-day meeting of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs, a group of gubernatorial appointees that includes Yellowbank. The subject of the first day was child welfare and featured a training session by ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) specialist Allison Lasley, Meskwaki, who explained ICWA provisions for commissioners and invited guests, including Iowa human rights director Preston Daniels, a representative of the governor’s office, and members of the Native American Unit of the state’s department of human services.

On the second day, the commission took up several issues, including a report on work in Iowa’s men’s and women’s prisons by Judy Morrison, Cherokee/Osage, Native American spiritual and cultural consultant for the department of corrections. Morrison called for more support after release. “I want there to be services for our people, including money for education and job training.”

LaMere added: “You can’t simply send them back to the situations that got them off track to begin with.”

LaMere and Senator Johanns, in South Sioux City.
After the two-day meeting concluded, LaMere and Yellowbank facilitated the presentation of the award-winning documentary, “The Battle for Whiteclay,” directed by Mark Vasina, in the sanctuary of St. Augustine Indian Mission, in Winnebago, Nebraska. Vasina and LaMere, who appears prominently in the film, spoke following the showing. The movie looks at the fight to control the flood of liquor and despair from beer stores in the Nebraska town of Whiteclay to the neighboring dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which straddles South Dakota and Nebraska.

The film also examines Nebraska officials’ resistance to ameliorating what has been called a human-rights crisis. Some claim the stores, which are licensed by the state, are legal businesses and therefore cannot be shut down. Another refrain, heard in the film and reported in Indian Country Today (Nebraska governor’s office on Whiteclay: No easy solution; August 18, 2010; vol. 30, no. 11), is that the problem is just too complex to resolve.

LaMere, who is involved in local, state and national politics in addition to his activism and his community work, reported he has set up a meeting with Senator Mike Johanns (R. – Neb.) to discuss Whiteclay. LaMere said the meeting was a breakthrough. “We may not come to conclusions, but we’ll put ideas on the table and see where they take us. That’s a very positive step.”

Going forward, Four Directions seeks “to elevate the discussion,” said LaMere. “Our elders have told us to do this. Our people have marched to accomplish this. We’re building bridges and fostering understanding.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Stephanie Woodard.

Body and soul: Cultural and spiritual advisor cares for Iowa’s Native inmates

Published in Indian Country Today in September 2010.

want to give back,” said Tisha Moore, Rosebud Sioux, who had just heard she’d been hired as an addiction technician at a drug-treatment facility. Moore, who has been out of prison for 16 months, has been employed since her release, but her new position is special. Glowing with enthusiasm, she explained that it will allow her to pass on what she learned from Judy Morrison, Cherokee/Osage, Native American cultural and spiritual consultant to Iowa’s department of corrections.

Moore and Morrison at Four Directions, in Sioux City.
“I got into trouble at boarding school, Moore said. But working with Judy at Mitchellville [women’s prison] — doing sweat lodge, talking circle and beading — I cleansed myself and got back to where I was before I went away to school. I saw a better side of me.” Now, Moore said, she can help others develop a sense of self-worth and work on bettering their lives.

Moore had dropped by Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, during Morrison’s report to a recent meeting of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs. She listened in as Morrison described to ICNAA her regular meetings with Iowa’s approximately 300 Native inmates and ongoing counseling on family, relationships and other topics.

Morrison also recounted dealing with continual crises. If an inmate believes a spouse may lose custody of children, Morrison gets an ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) representative involved. Morrison may be present when a prisoner gives birth to ensure compliance with the woman’s pregnancy plan, including custody arrangements for her newborn. She notifies inmates when a family member has passed and arranges for ceremonies when needed.

She is the only official who touches Native inmates’ ceremonial items. For example, she explained, if a sweat lodge needs to be searched, she does it. “There’s nowhere in Iowa’s 10 prisons I don’t go. If someone is in lockup, I go there as well, so they know they’re not alone.”

Morrison also helps promote cancer education for Native women, including those in prison, in the form of the Pink Shawl Project. One of Iowa Cancer Consortium’s many outreach programs, the effort came into being with cooperation and funding from several groups, notably the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, in Rapid City, and the Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities, Iowa, said Sara Comstock, assistant director of ICC. Events take place both at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, in Mitchellville, and in Native communities statewide.

At sessions, women design and sew shawls in addition to receiving culturally appropriate cancer education and screenings, said Morrison. The project, like each participant, is wrapped in a powerful symbol of women’s importance in Native life. “Women are the backbone of our Native communities. Wrapping a shawl around yourself is wrapping the community around your shoulders.”

Making the garments brings women together, according to Sandy Edwards, Omaha, who made her first shawl while at Mitchellville and is now, after release, setting about regaining custody of her children. Said Morrison: “Prison is geared to separate people, but working together on the shawls makes women feel like sisters. Some were brought up with traditional ways. Others are learning what it means to be an Indian woman, to be proud of who they are and to depend on each other. While sewing, the inmates forget they’re in prison. They tell me they feel free.”

The cancer-education program for incarcerated Native women has grown to encompass other participants. Going forward, said Morrison, Cherokee Nation elder and ICNAA commissioner Tom Cornwell will offer colon-cancer education to Native men in prison, and non-Native female inmates will also receive mammograms and follow-up care. “With Sara Comstock’s hard work, we got a free screening for every woman who wanted one this year and every year from now on, which means better health care for all women while saving the state a truckload of money.” 

Moore and Edwards are among Morrison’s many success stories. Morrison spoke of the need for support while people are incarcerated and after release. “The question is: How do we want our people to come home from prison? I want them to be whole when they return.”

How does Morrison cope with her 24/7 job, often dealing with wrenching life crises? Her answer was immediate and sure. “My spirituality renews me.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.

Listening cure: South Dakota Senate candidate wants to hear voters’ concerns

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2010.

The district candidate Julie Garreau wants to represent in the South Dakota State Senate stretches from the hilly banks of the Missouri River mid-state across rolling prairies, buttes, and pocket “badlands” to South Dakota’s western boundary. Covering more than 13,000 square miles, the rugged terrain of District 28 encompasses ranches, farms, towns, and two large Indian reservations, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock.

            The area’s economic and social problems are just as big and just as rugged, but Garreau, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe whose name will be on the ballot in November, wants to fix them by listening, rather than by telling people what’s going to happen. “This is not about me. It’s about the people of this district and what they need. We need economic development that helps everyone. We want our farmers and ranchers to prosper. We want our young people to stay here and build families. We have law-enforcement issues. When I get to the Senate, my job will be to pay attention to my constituents and find out how they want me to solve these problems.

            The listening starts right away, though. She’s hoping folks contact her through the information on her website (julieforstatesenate.com) and let her know their concerns.

With Sen. Johnson and others, at CRYP.
Garreau, who manages to be both charismatic and modest, said she learned to pay close attention to others while working with children, a career that has garnered state and national honors, including one bestowed by President George H.W. Bush and the 2009 Spirit of South Dakota Award. The Cheyenne River Youth Project (CYRP) Garreau started in 1988 has grown from a one-room facility into a major community organization with a children’s center, teen center, family services program, international volunteer program, and 2.5-acre vegetable garden.

            The economic development Garreau foresees will be sustainable, she said. “We have to be sure businesses we bring in create jobs that benefit all South Dakotans, while protecting our beautiful land. Sustainability is a traditional Lakota value, and it’s also very practical.”

            Garreau will continue working for reconciliation between South Dakota’s white and Native communities and sees herself representing both. “Let’s get communication going. So many issues in this state are defined as ‘white’ or ‘Indian,’ but in reality are the result of poverty and exclusion that affects both communities.”

Garreau’s been getting an enthusiastic reception as she makes appearances across District 28. Her Facebook site shows a range of wholehearted support. “How about some meat? Or voter hauling?” one supporter wrote in. “Need legal research, holla at me!!!!” e-mailed another. “I can always use more volunteers, though,” Garreau said.

            Though this is her first run for office, she’s no stranger to politics. She has been president of the Dewey County Democrats for 2 years and was a coordinator for then-Senator Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. She communicates regularly with the state’s national representatives, and in the Congressional Record, Senator Tim Johnson called her “a tireless advocate [who] deserves high praise for the love, hard work, and dedication she has shown for her community.”

One idea she’s supporting is wider access to early voting. Casting a ballot ahead of election day is a popular option in South Dakota, with its huge distances and difficult driving conditions during colder months. High gas prices also make many eager to avoid a special trip to vote.

However, this option is not consistently available. “Appalling” was how state senator Ben Nesselhuf, who is running for South Dakota secretary of state, described the situation for Native citizens. “I can walk a few blocks to the county auditor and cast my vote weeks early — at my convenience, no explanations necessary. This is not available to many Native Americans in South Dakota.”

To remedy the problem in their area, the Dewey County Democrats have requested early voting in several locales around the county, including Eagle Butte, where Cheyenne River’s population is concentrated, according to Garreau. However, the county currently plans to offer it only in tiny rural Timber Lake, according to head election official Adele Enright.

Having this option is especially important on reservations, said attorney Greg Lembrich, a senior associate in the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and legal director for voter-rights group Four Directions, Inc. Lembrich analyzed voter-participation statistics from the 2004 and 2008 elections and found that Native Americans take advantage of early voting in large numbers. “When the opportunity is denied, many of these citizens are effectively disenfranchised.”

Garreau was hopeful that Dewey County’s voting limitations would be fixed by election time. “Improving access to the ballot box is good for all candidates and all voters. I’m operating on the assumption that everyone wants everyone to vote. I want as many people as possible to participate and am not giving up hope that this will happen.”

Does Garreau have her eye on a Washington office someday? Maybe, maybe not, she responded. “It would have to feel right at the time, just as this race does right now.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy of Julie Garreaus campaign.