Since 1996 the Native American Development Corporation has worked with tribes throughout Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas to help build local business and champion economic growth.
Based in Billings, NADC officials watched this spring as different groups scrambled to help connect American Indians with health care after the Indian Health Board of Billings abruptly closed its doors in May.
"There was a lot of people really concerned," said Leonard Smith, executive director of NADC.
So he decided to get his organization involved.
NADC held four community meetings at the Billings Library, seeking feedback and input from the American Indian community downtown. The meetings led to several insights.
First, the NADC could fill the void. A handful of community leaders asked the NADC to apply for the contract with Indian Health Services that the Indian Health Board of Billings let lapse.
"We know how to structure organizations," said Mary Walks Over Ice, a program manager for NADC. "Our audits are clean. We're very transparent."
The Indian Health Board of Billings operated as part of the federal Urban Indian Program. Federal law allows for Indian Health Services to contract with health care providers to serve American Indian populations that live in urban centers rather than on reservations, where IHS clinics are established.
IHS is in the process of selecting a new organization to pick up the contract and open a new clinic for Billings' American Indian population. NADC submitted its application earlier this summer.
The feedback Smith and Walks Over Ice received at the four community meetings seemed to center almost exclusively on a sense of community that American Indians living in Billings desire but have struggled to find.
Any new clinic that will replace IHBB needs to represent that community, Smith said.
That led to the second insight.
"It kind of woke us up," Walks Over Ice said. "We don't have a place to gather."
Those attending the meetings overwhelmingly expressed a desire to have some kind of Indian community center, a gathering place for urban natives to celebrate or recreate or simply to hang out. To that end, NADC will continue to hold community meetings to give American Indians living in Billings a chance to express their thoughts and opinions.
Smith and Walks Over Ice believe giving people a sense of belonging and helping them create a community is a vital part to improving American Indian health care.
"Whether we get it (the contract) or not, we want to be a part of this community," Walks Over Ice said.
IHS has given no final date for when it would award the new contract. Regardless of IHS' decision, NADC plans to continue to play a role in organizing the American Indian community and supporting the new health clinic.
"It's not about NADC," Smith said. "We're a voice for the Indian community here in Billings."