Graphic by Maggie Liu

Dane County sits empty handed as Ho-Chunk Nation looks to add mental health resources

In 2015, American Indian and Alaska Natives had the highest suicide rate of any racial or ethnic group.

The Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin is working to combat that reality.

The Ho-Chunk Nation is one of four tribes that originally inhabited Wisconsin, and while they have no official reservation, they have parcels of land spread over Dane, Jackson, Juneau, Monro, Sauk, Shawano and Wood counties, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.  

The United States Census reported in 2016 that approximately 4,670 American Indian or Alaska Natives reside in Dane County, including over 350 Ho-Chunk people.

In 2016, the tribe released a comprehensive tribal action plan to address suicide prevention and mental health resources for tribal members.

This action plan presents community obstacles such as insurance limitations, hoarding resources, communication breakdown and a lack of understanding of mental health. It also lays out a set of six goals for the nation and an extensive timeline detailing their plan of action.

A few objectives listed are coordinating a comprehensive prevention and treatment program for alcoholism and other substance abuse, developing partnerships with local, state, tribal and federal agencies, and initiating and implementing recovery support for individuals suffering from mental health and substance use issues.

The Ho-Chunk Department of Health offers public health care services throughout Wisconsin to improve the health and welfare of its tribal members, as stated by their website.

There are six tribal health centers for the Ho-Chunk people, none residing in Dane County. The closest center is the Baraboo House of Wellness.

“Madison has many clinics, hospitals and behavioral health resources available that aren’t easily accessible to our people, said Ona Garvin, health director for the Ho Chunk Nation in an email. “The distance from their homes to Madison is not an easy daily commute.”

Resource allocation, which takes into account the population of Native Americans in an area and the amount of money allocated to the Indian Health Service by Congress, could be part of the problem.

According to the Indian Health Service, to be eligible for contract health services you must be an Indian from a federally recognized tribe or reside on or near an Indian reservation within a contract health service delivery area.

Dane County was not a Contract Health Service Delivery Area until 2007. Now, anyone who resides in Dane County has access to these services, although there is no clinic in the area to distribute these aiding resources.

All other tribal clinics provide services to members of the Ho-Chunk Nation or other federally recognized tribes. However, members are also required to utilize other health care resources, independent from IHS funds, available through state and federal programs provided in the county, said Garvin.

Ninah Divine, a first year medical student at UW-Madison and member of the Cherokee tribe, has experienced the difficulties of finding a nearby clinic firsthand.

“It makes a huge difference having health services close to you,” Divine said. “Right now I live on the North East side. I have to drive all the way up to Baraboo or even to Michigan to go to tribal clinics.”

Divine said tribal-specific health work is necessary because providing health services to Native people is different in a number of ways.

“It has a lot to do with being removed from homelands, having your culture and identity suppressed historically over generations and being misrepresented in mainstream media,” Divine said.

She also stated a common misconception of Native people is that they live on reservations, when really the majority of Native Americans live in urban areas. There’s a large population, whether its recognized or recorded, in large cities, particularly in Wisconsin.

“It’s easy to say there aren’t a lot of [Native Americans] here and that’s why a designated tribal health center hasn’t been created,” Divine said.

Dane County Supervisor Hayley Young said she believes having access to culturally competent health care is important, especially for mental health care.

Young serves on the Health and Human Needs Committee, but the group hasn’t discussed anything on this topic specifically, noting that a tribal health center would be a big policy proposal.

Statewide, tribal health clinics have behavioral services equipped with individuals who can understand Native people that are heavily utilized by many different tribes. Divine says having doctors and behavioral services nearby and provided to you for free makes a significant difference.

She also thinks it’s important because of the historical context, noting health care was a part of the exchange in all of the things Native people sacrificed to live here.

“It’s an issue,” Divine said. “It’s definitely something I’ve thought about before.”

When asked how city and county leaders in Dane County and Madison can assist in providing resources, Garvin called  “Go to your city and county leaders in Dane County and Madison and ask.”

Allison Garfield Box - staff writer