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Clinic on OR reservation drives tribal self-reliance

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Tuesday, June 4, 2024   

By Claire Carlson for The Daily Yonder.
Broadcast version by Eric Tegethoff for Oregon News Service for the Public News Service/Daily Yonder Collaboration


A new public health clinic on the Grand Ronde reservation in rural Polk and Yamhill counties, Oregon, promises to address healthcare gaps and advance tribal sovereignty for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The clinic, which opened May 17, 2024, will offer preventative services like vaccines, dental care, and nutrition classes to bolster the overall wellbeing of tribal members.

Officials working for the tribe say the new clinic will help the community take care of its own. "We're making sure that we can look after our own members and not be waiting on somebody else to provide some kind of help or service or something," said Ryan Webb, the engineering and planning manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, at a press tour of the new building on May 6.

The clinic will add to an already robust hospital system that offers basic and specialty care to the community, which means tribal members don't have to travel far distances (a minimum of 50 miles round trip to the nearest city) to access the majority of their healthcare needs.

Tribal members said this kind of self-reliance is nonnegotiable because of a long history of mistreatment by the federal government.

In 1857, the government forcibly removed the Tillamook people - a diverse group of Native Americans who lived up and down the Oregon coast in 29 distinct bands each with their own language - from their homelands and onto the original Grand Ronde reservation, creating the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. Over 300 Native Americans were forced to walk more than 200 miles to get to the reservation, a journey that's remembered by tribal members as Grand Ronde's "Trail of Tears." Once they reached the reservation, services like healthcare and education were promised to be provided by the federal government, but tribal members say these promises were not kept.

Then, in 1954, Congress passed the Western Oregon Termination Act that ended federal recognition of 60 tribes in western Oregon, the largest number of tribes to be terminated under any single federal law. This meant that the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, along with tribes like the Coos, Coquille, Siletz, Siuslaw, and Lower Umpqua, lost every treaty right they had with the federal government.

"Everything was taken," said Cheryle Kennedy, chairwoman of the Grand Ronde tribal council and former tribal health director. "There wasn't compensation or anything. It was, 'no, you're no longer Indian, no more identity. You can't receive any Indian service and all of your land is gone.'" It was the government's way of assimilating Native Americans into mainstream American culture.

The government was no longer required to offer any of the programs or resources extended to federally recognized tribes. Any property held by the tribes was taken by the government, which proved to be economically devastating, especially to the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon who possessed valuable timberlands.

Eventually, after nearly three decades of lobbying, some Oregon tribes regained federal recognition, including the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in 1983. Their current reservation is roughly 11,500 acres in size.

The tribe has been working to rebuild their nation since receiving federal recognition for the second time, and a thriving healthcare system has been central to this effort. The first health clinic in Grand Ronde was built in 1997, and the tribe has been expanding ever since.

Currently, tribal members can receive optometry, pharmacy, behavioral health, cardiology, opioid treatment, and naturopathy services on the reservation. Kelly Rowe, the tribe's current health director, is working to bring endocrinology, rheumatology, and nephrology services to Grand Ronde. All enrolled Grand Ronde tribal members can get free health services from the hospital.

"The whole thought behind the big clinic was to bring everything here to Grand Ronde so people could get it without having to travel," Rowe said.

The newly-built public health clinic expands the hospital's preventative health services by providing a permanent location for vaccine administration (a need the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted), dental care, and nutrition classes. It also features an outdoor fish pit where tribal members can learn how to prepare traditional meals.

The clinic was built with support from Energy Trust, a nonprofit that works with utilities, community organizations, government agencies and others to bring the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy to more people in Oregon, according to an Energy Trust spokesperson.

Energy Trust pointed the tribe to sustainability grants to pay for the solar panels that cover the building's roof, which the tribe said will enable them to be even more self-reliant in the face of natural disaster. If their electricity goes out, the new building will still be able to power itself, keeping vaccines that require refrigeration cool.

Along with the technical support from Energy Trust, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde paid for the project using Covid-19 federal relief funds and tribal money.

"I think that [shows] the tribe's investment in healthcare for its people, because they're very committed to making sure that they're providing healthcare and providing as much as possible for the membership," Rowe said.


Claire Carlson wrote this article for The Daily Yonder.


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