White Earth purchases tribal teen treatment centerby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
The White Earth Band of Ojibwe is moving forward with plans to create a chemical dependency and mental health treatment center for Indian kids. The Band announced Wednesday, the purchase of a huge, residential treatment facility in Bemidji. The goal is to offer programs that are sensitive to Indian culture. Tribal leaders hope it will help stem the tide of Indian youth who end up behind bars.
Bemidji, Minn. — A White Earth drum group provides an honor song as this sprawling 40-acre site gets an Ojibwe ceremonial blessing.
For 44 years, this treatment center was run by a group called Episcopal Services, Incorporated, until they shut it down last year. Now, it belongs to the White Earth Band.
They've renamed it the Oshki Manidoo, or New Spirit Center. It will serve boys and girls ages 12 to 18.
White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor says this campus, dotted with pines, lush yards and a small pond, is the perfect place for Indian kids to come and fight their addictions.
"It's peaceful," she said. "It's a healing place. It's a place for families."
Vizenor says White Earth got interested in running its own youth treatment center a few years ago, when they learned of a startling statistic.
American Indians make up close to 47 percent of the youth in Minnesota's juvenile corrections system. That's a pretty high number, when you consider that Indians are less than two percent of the state's population.
Vizenor says American Indian youth are at the bottom of many other indicators of well being. Hundreds of them are sent to state-run treatment or detention centers each year. But she says it's often a revolving door, with limited success.
"One of the problems is that our youth are sent to far away places," Vizenor said. "At this very moment, we have our youth in correctional facilities in South Dakota, in Minneapolis, far removed, do not see their family for three or four months, and then finish those programs and come back into the community with no follow up."
This new center isn't a lock-up facility, but for some kids, it could take the place of a stay behind bars.
American Indian culture and family integration will be key components at the center.
Some studies show American Indian kids are more successful when they're taught in a setting that supports their cultural identity, according to Ron Valiant, the tribe's executive director.
Valiant says state-run facilities haven't been able to do that well.
"A lot of the programs are set up with more of the mainstream, the white child and that," Valiant said. "We want to get a lot of the cultural back. We want to bring in the elders to work with the kids. We want to bring a lot of our spiritual things back in with the kids. So, yes, we think that's really lacking right now."
The tribe paid nearly $6 million for the treatment center. The state Legislature committed $2 million for the project, the tribe got $2 million from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and White Earth put up the rest.
The center comes complete with five residential group homes that can accommodate 68 residents. The property has a swimming pool, volleyball and basketball courts, a sweat-lodge and lighted ski trails. There's even an on-site school and gymnasium.
There's been interest in the center from Indian communities across the U.S. and Canada. But it's likely most of the kids will come from Minnesota's three largest Indian reservations -- White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake -- all located in the Bemidji region.
There's a long way to go before the Oshki Manidoo Center is up and running. White Earth special projects coordinator Lorna Lague says the tribe still needs to hire a director and about 80 staff.
Lague says the tribe plans to conduct focus groups in surrounding tribal and non-tribal communities to get feedback.
"We want to have everyone's input on this before any programming is created," Lague said. "We want to hear what the courts are seeing, to hear the issues that Human Services has already identified. We want to get all of their input before we start up. Once we get started up, we're hoping that other tribes will be involved with us on it."
Chemical dependency treatment will be the focus to start with, but organizers plan to eventually offer a broad range of mental health treatment services for kids.
The goal is to open the doors by October, but officials say it's more likely the center will open early next year.
- All Things Considered, 07/09/2008, 5:50 p.m.