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Spirit Lake exhibit hopes to inspire:A goal is to spark a rebirth of the oral history tradition among Native Americans

Kevin Bonham / Forum News Service Laidman Fox Jr., Spirit Lake Nation spiritual leader, and his wife, Rebekah Jarvey, watch Fox's video presentation, one of 150 people featured in a touring interactive exhibit, "Native Voices: Native People's Concepts of Health and Illness," produced by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md. The exhibit opened Thursday in Fort Totten, N.D., the first stop on a nationwide tour. It will be at Cankdeska Cikana Community College until January.

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- Laidman Fox Jr. attributes the loss of the storytelling tradition among native people to the loss of nature itself.

"My grandparents would always talk about the land," the Spirit Lake Nation spiritual leader says in an interactive video. "They would always talk about the hills, and they would tell us stories, about the trees and the water. Everything in nature they had stories for.

"Today, you don't hear that too much among the people. And a lot of them, they know that there are things going on in our community. The water has taken over. ... We have the housing areas and the flooding, and things like that, so it's hard, especially for the kids, to think of positive things about nature.

"To me, the Plains are beautiful. I like that you can look and you can see forever."

Fox is one of 150 storytellers featured in an interactive exhibit, "Native Voices: Native People's Concepts of Health and Illness," produced and hosted by the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.

A smaller traveling exhibit opened Thursday at Cankdeska Cikana Community College, a two-year tribal college. Scheduled to stay until January, Spirit Lake is the first stop on a nationwide tour.

One of the exhibit's goals is to spark a rebirth of the oral history tradition among Native Americans, Fox said.

Health and pride

It also is a program designed to encourage young people to pursue education, particularly in health care, according to Cankdeska Cikana President Cynthia Lindquist, who served on the national steering committee.

"I think it showcases role models, Indian leaders, tribal people, tribal elders, spiritual leaders, medicine people, medicine healers in our community," Lindquist said. "I think it showcases the potential, the possibilities, and that yes, they can do this. It emanates from the identity of who we are and to be proud of that and to keep going academically."

Thursday's featured speaker was Dr. Donald Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine.

The exhibit, he said, is a collection of interviews with about 150 Native Americans -- Native Indians, Native Hawaiians, Native Alaskans -- from all over the country.

"Out of those conversations we can really see a lot of wisdom," he said. "We can see that native people, while they're not the same in all these different places, they all have a lot to contribute. Their views are worth hearing. They're worth sharing among the native peoples and they're worth sharing among the bigger population.

"All three have the general idea that the responsibility for your health is yours," he said. "Somebody doesn't do it to you or for you. You do it. And that's a pretty good idea.

"Another idea is pride in yourself and your idea is almost essential for health, for healthy behavior. Otherwise, why bother?

"We see lots of counter-examples. People accept the idea that they're not worthy. And they don't bother to take care of themselves."

He said his hidden agenda in the exhibit is to encourage more Native Americans to enter medical school, or the health field in general.

Looking ahead

He commended Cankdeska Cikana and Lindquist, school president for the past 10 years, as being a leader in advancing the cause of education and particularly medical education, among tribal members.

The college's enrollment has doubled, to about 225 students, in the past decade. Lindquist said her goal is to reach 400.

North Dakota's Indians Into Medicine Program, a partnership between the state's Indian tribes and the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has graduated as many as 25 percent of the Native American physicians in the nation, according to Lindquist.

Thursday's presentation added another eight voices to the show through a companion program: "Your Native Voices: First Person Narratives from the Spirit Lake Nation," produced by nDigiDreams.

The eight stories, filmed over the past week at the college, address issues of alcoholism and suicide. But the storytellers also speak of overcoming such obstacles and, about hope.

Lindquist said the local storytelling program will continue after the traveling exhibit moves on. However, many of the stories likely will be added to the collection.

"This will be our vehicle to save those stories and to share them," she said. "I think this is a powerful, powerful tool."