The BEAR Project, strong medicine for Indians with AIDs
Traditional healers and modern doctors
join forces to ease the pain and
By Brenda Norrell
Special to Navajo Times
LAME DEER, Mon. The
road to Lame Deer begins in Seattle, in the home
of Robert Free (Galvan), where American Indians are engaged in battle
the loss of lives and happiness to HIV/AIDs.
Free, a veteran of Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, is a member of an
group of activists guided by spiritual elders for the past
twelve years in the AIDs field.
Seated in his living
room, surrounded by coastal art, Leonard Peltier
posters and photographs of his children, Free says it is not just the
of AIDs that is killing Indian people, but the fear and
ignorance of the disease.
"There are new miracle drugs,"
Although there is no cure for HIV/AIDs, modern medicines taken in the
form of a cocktail of medications,
are so effective that doctors are
now often unable to detect the virus in a person with HIV/AIDs.
There is other
good news in the treatment of American Indians with
AIDs. Grassroots workers in the Tribal BEAR (Building Effective AIDs
Project, are delivering medical and spiritual assistance at
home on tribal lands.
Bear is medicine to both the coastal
and Plains tribes, Free said.
Now, working out of an office at the University of Washington with
federal funds, Free
helped launch a project to bring together
traditional healers with modern doctors.
On May 3, for the first time,
Northern Cheyenne traditional healers
gathered with medical doctors from Seattle, delivering a workshop on
AIDs on Northern
Cheyenne tribal land in Lame Deer.
Speaking to nurses from the Northern Cheyenne region, healers and
of easing the pain and suffering when patients are ready
to cross over to the Spirit World.
"It is the Creator who
does the healing," said Northern Cheyenne
traditional healer Lee Lone Bear, as he explained how healers use
medicine roots in ceremonies.
"There are miracles," he said. But Lone Bear said it is also important
to know when
it is time to let a person cross over, and not hold them
in this world only to endure endless suffering.
Bock, specialist in cancer and Dr. Randy Curtis, specialist
in respiratory disease, both working in Seattle, described
used in the treatment of acute pain.
Then, Northern Cheyenne traditional healer Bernard Red Cherries
how a Cheyenne healing ceremony brought back a young boy
hovering close to death on life support.
Days later, when
he awoke, the boy described hiding from the medicine
man as he performed the ceremony, I was running from you. Although
is in a wheelchair today, he survived and is attending college.
Traditional healers and doctors said it is important
to know how they
can work together and when to call on one another. They expressed a
need to learn more about the interaction
of modern medicines and
Following the workshop, Cheyenne healers and medical staff from Seattle
Deer Medicine Rocks near Lame Deer.
Here, in the red hills on Rosebud Creek, Sitting Bull called together
Cheyenne and Arapaho as General George Crook was slaughtering
Indian people in 1876.
Beneath the rock marked with
a blue streak where it had been hit with
lightning, Sitting Bull dreamed and prayed for the strength of the
survive. With 15,000 gathered, he fulfilled his promise to
Wakan Tanka and offered 100 pieces of flesh from his arms and
his Sun Dance and vision.
Sitting Bull had a vision of soldiers coming down like grasshoppers,
heads down and their hats falling off. This vision inspired
the warriors and gave them the confidence they needed to rise
Sitting Bulls vision became a reality as General George Armstrong
Custer made his last stand near Lame Deer.
working with HIV/AIDs response teams, Free and many other unsung
heroes on the staff at the Tribal BEAR Project are battling
taking the lives of Indian people.
There are 3,000 American Indians with AIDs and probably several times
number with HIV. An unknown number remain infected and undetected
by way of body fluids: blood or semen. About 60
infected by way of unprotected sex between males and needle users. The
other 40 percent are infected by
heterosexual unprotected sex.
Prevention didnt happen, now you have HIV/AIDs.
Besides fear and a lack of knowledge,
HIV/AIDs services are expensive,
$6,000 to $10,000 annually for an individuals medications and lab
Indians have been left out of the formula for the bulk of
federal dollars under the Ryan White Care Act. Indian health
facilities are only eligible for funds if they can prove they are
operating without funds.
At the same time,
states receive federal dollars based on Indian
populations, but fail to deliver dollars or services to American
Meanwhile, many Indian communities are hesitating to apply for grants
or accept services.
is front line work that no one wants to do," Free says. It gets my
blood going. It brings up all the issues of racism and
it is also an area open to creativity.
After one tribe in the state of Washington declined thousands
dollars in grants and to apply for another $1 million grant, Free said,
It is easier to pretend the factors that
lead to HIV dont exist on a
Most doctors on reservations have decided not to work with AIDs
Taking the medications presents another problem. It comes with a
price. You cant miss taking them or
the HIV virus will mutate and
become immune to the medications.
The Northwest AIDs Education and Training Center
in Seattle, where the
BEAR Project is based, serves Alaska, Washington, Montana, Idaho and
Oregon. It is among 14 centers
in the United States responsible for
bringing the latest HIV/AIDs care training to providers across the
the Northern Cheyenne, the Tribal BEAR Project is working
closely with Skokomish and Nisqually communities in the Northwest.
Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, Puyallup fishing rights struggles and the
Trail of Broken Treaties, Free says for Indian warriors,
health and wellbeing, is another battlefront.
Like spiritual leaders across the country, Red Cherries
diseases were foretold. We were told in our prophecies that there
would come a time when there are diseases
for which there is no cure.
While there is no cure, there is hope. Back in Seattle, in Frees
living room, are stacks
of videos produced by the BEAR Project,
Community Support is Strong Medicine. To the sound of pow wow drums
songs, American Indians with AIDs tell their story.
One Indian woman from Montana tells how she promised the Creator
abstain from alcohol and drugs if her own young son could live free of
the HIV/AIDs virus.
He tested free
Free, too, tells of an Indian diagnosed with AIDs and given three
months to live. He sought out traditional
They gave him the spiritual strength to take on this disease. Now,
eight years later, this individual travels
the country talking about
HIV and AIDs.
Free still has another story to tell, of how Buddhist monks are told to
to America and spend time with American Indians.
They are told that anyone who can survive the machinery of America
the cause of so much death and destruction of the people and land --
and are still able to maintain their ceremonies
and their culture must
have great strength.
"Go learn from them, is what a Buddhist master told his monks."
Tribal BEAR Project