Leon Rattler
Leon Rattler, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, speaks about art and the healing process during the “Journey to Wellness: A Spiritual Endeavor” conference at the Holiday Inn Hotel and Convention Center Wednesday afternoon. JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff

American Indians need their cultural roots for strength and identity, but many tribes are losing their language and religious traditions as their older members die.

“This is one of the things elders forget,” said Joe Iron Man, a spiritual leader from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. “They never teach. They take it with them.”

Iron Man spoke Wednesday at the Holiday Inn during a conference about spirituality and wellness hosted by the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.

He said he is mentoring five young men at Fort Belknap, all of whom are learning how to perform traditional sun dances. Iron Man, who is Cree and Gros Ventre, became a spiritual leader 50 years ago after his father died.

The sense of belonging that people find in their culture can be a powerful salve for the many hardships in life, and American Indians face plenty of challenges, said Joseph Stone, a clinical psychologist who spoke at the conference.

“We have been in a state of survival for the past 500 years,” Stone said.

Stone, who is Blackfeet, said trauma has laced the lives of every generation of American Indians since white settlers arrived on the East Coast in the 1500s, and much of it can be traced to the dispossession of those early tribes.

Any people who are dispossessed, or forcibly removed from their homeland, experience a deep psychological trauma, Stone said.

Parents suffering from traumatic experiences unwittingly pass their stress on to their children, whose brains develop differently in response, he said. That sets the stage for more dysfunction and, in the case of American Indians, was compounded by a series of traumatic events that unfolded over decades, including war, disease outbreaks and boarding schools.

“I don’t get the luxury of standing here talking about this stuff as though it’s a theory,” Stone said. “It’s my story.”

“It’s good to know the story,” he said. “It’s good to know we can change it.”

Reviving traditions that were lost when Indian children were sent to Christian boarding schools or when families tried to assimilate into white culture can help tribal members who have lost their way, Stone said.

But straddling two cultures, as most modern-day Indians must do, is not easy.

Even the Indian Health Service, whose sole purpose is to provide health care for the country’s native population, does not automatically embrace traditional ideas.

A policy written in 1994 addresses the issue, but it is “growing dust somewhere,” said Garland Stiffarm, deputy director of the Billings-area IHS.

“We have to make it a living, breathing document and treat our patients right,” Stiffarm said at the conference.

Incorporating traditional approaches to wellness into other medical settings can be even more unwieldy, said Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.

Belcourt, who is Blackfeet, said a Montana hospital once threatened to call the police because so many members of his family had gathered at the bedside of a sick loved one.

In another instance, he said, a nurse at a different hospital told family members a patient was speaking gibberish when in reality he was asking for water in his native language.

“When we burn sage, guards come running because they think we’re smoking marijuana,” Belcourt said.

Contact Diane Cochran at dcochran@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.