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Erie County workshop seeks better understanding of Native culture in health care, emergencies

Native Americans have, on many tragic occasions, been subject to traumatic experiences which, in turn, have left long-term effects on the community's health and well-being. Erie County officials hosted a special training session Thursday designed to foster better understanding between Natives and non-Natives when addressing health and wellness needs.

Erie County welcomed medical, mental health and substance abuse providers to its Fire Training Academy, where classroom and workshop sessions were held for what was referred to as "cultural comptency."

"Some people only know they can go to the reserve and get tax-free cigarettes, gas, and go a casino here and there," said Pete Hill, who directs a project known as "All Our Relations" through Native American Community Services and is a citizen of the Cayuga nation and member of the Herring Clan. "But there's so much more to our culture and our communities."

Most citizens, Hill adds, live off reservation land. Native American populations, it was noted at Thursday's workshops, have their own health issues and challenges.

"We see a lot of health disparities with many minority populations and Native Americans are included in that," said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

Among their health issues are higher rates of addiction, usually opioids.

"We also know that Native Americans have higher rates of other health struggles," Burstein added. "Like HIV, sexually transmitted infections, diabetes, all the health ptoblems that we struggle with as a county we are seeing at higher rates among the Native (American) population."

Understanding the unique challenges and needs of the Native American community was a focus of Thursday's event. To Hill, a more important question is not what is happening but whyit is happening. He traces some of the problems to what he described as historic traumas to the Native American community.

He did not detail any specific examples but there are plenty, from being forced off lands, to environmental destruction of sacred lands, to death and disease, to how Natives were historically portrayed in older movies and shows and as caricatures in sports logos.

"There is an amount of distrust of government from indigenous people's perspectives," said Hill. "This training that we're doing today is helping people understand why there is that mistrust and how we can overcome that."

Hill added that the respective nations generally have good working relationships with emergency responders located off their land. But as first responders perhaps rush to a scene, focused on saving someone, there's still room to be aware of their surroundings and of the different culture of the people they may be serving, according to the health commissioner.

"We all have the same goal to save lives and prevent overdoses. But it's just figuring out how to get there, for people to be respectful and adhere to cultural practices so not to accidentally offend anybody," Burstein said.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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