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Nakani Native Program: Bringing Back Traditional Ways Of Healing

Nakani is a word that comes from the Tlingit language. Nakani is defined as a person, or entity, which serves as a connector and/ or go between for different people, places, and cultures. This is the role each member of Nakani’s Native Program tries to embody as they help bring together all tribal communities to learn from and about one another. This word is a perfect descriptor for its members and leadership. This description is also a perfect introduction to each of the members I interviewed for this article.

Nakani Native Program has undergone many changes since it began as an offshoot of American Friends Service Committee, AFSC.  AFSC, is a non-profit Quaker organization founded by the Religious Society of Friends. The Nakani Native Program was discontinued by AFSC in 2017, when AFSC decided it no longer needed a Northwest Indian Program. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated staff and supporters The Nakani Native Program not only continues after being dismissed, the Nakani Native program thrives, they have evolved into an almost all Native run and centered non-profit. Today, Nakani Native Program is an independent entity, exemplifying the resilience and perseverance as they work to bring traditional knowledge and healing to our Native communities with the help of funding from Healthier Here’s grant from the Medicaid Transformation Project.

Ellany Kayce is a member of the Tlingit Nation, Raven/ Frog Clan. She is Nakani Native Programs’ Executive Director. Ellany has been with the Nakani Native Program from the very beginning as an original board member and founder under AFSC. In this interview with Ellany, we spoke about the direction Nakani Native Program is aiming for, Ellany spoke to the need for upholding treaty rights, and tribal food sovereignty. “We have to make sure our native communities have access to healthy and culturally appropriate food.” She spoke to Nakani Native Program’s dedication as they try to transition more into a return to traditional practices by revitalizing our traditional foods and medicines. The hope being we can ensure that we are growing, gathering, hunting, and fishing in ways that are maintainable in the long run. Only be doing and teaching these ways can we retain this knowledge for our future generations to have access to the knowledge of the how and why of our traditional teachings and foods. Only in this way can we start to heal from the historical trauma indigenous people live under and face in our everyday life.

For Nakani Board Member Lisa Powers of the Comanche Numunu Nation, a longtime advocate for Native children in our foster care system the need to step up has never been clearer. Lisa Powers describes our foster care systems as a continuation of Boarding school. With few foster homes being run by indigenous people our children in state run foster care are still being forcibly taken away from important teachings that would otherwise serve to ground them to culture, healing, and the roots needed to thrive in our tribal communities. Lisa spoke to the disenfranchisement of Native children as an advocate who has spent most of her life championing our Native children within the foster care systems. Over the years I have personally seen how much Lisa gives of herself, openly sharing her time, knowledge, and always with lots of care and love. Now as a board member for Nakani Native Program, Lisa continues to advocate for breaking down barriers so those disenfranchised by foster care, adoption, transgenerational trauma, whatever the reason, Lisa hopes to use her voice and position to break down barriers and to create the opportunities to embrace and share the teachings our Native communities need to heal and live healthy, happy lives.

Whether you are looking at this historically through Boarding Schools, relocation of Native peoples from their lands to adoption campaigns to non-Native families, or to the laws that forbade our language and our culture, we as indigenous people have suffered a forced disconnect. Some are lucky enough to come from families or communities who retained the teachings and knowledge, but for many of us, like myself, we did not have access to our Indigenous communities or teachings. These are some of the reasons Nakani has taken it upon themselves to bring traditional healing and practices to the forefront with help from organizations like Healthier Here and funds from the Medicaid Transformation Project.

Things that create barriers for indigenous people can be obvious, like our being forcibly pushed from our traditional lands, our traditional teachings, and our traditional languages, and some of us from our communities as a whole. This makes it harder for a lot of us to connect, to learn, and share information with one another. How we look at each other, and treat one another, whether we are urban or from a reservation, it should not matter. On these matters, Lisa had this to say, “we as Native People need our roots, we need our teachings, we need each other”, Lisa Powers Comanche Nation. Lisa is moving forward with the Nakani Native Program with the hope “to build up our communities.”

My second interview was with, Lindsey Crofoot a member of the Tlingit Nation, Raven/ Beaver Clan on her mother’s side, Colville, Okanogan descendant descendant on her father’s side Lindsey is Nakani Native Programs Traditional Medicine Program’s Director and she is passionate about the barriers indigenous people face when trying to access traditional medicines. One barrier Lindsey spoke to is the honest fact that the knowledge to use and treat with our indigenous medicines is not open or available to all indigenous people. Another barrier is where you can versus where you cannot collect and the knowledge of how to collect with respect to our relationship with each medicine. There are also environmental restrictions like pollution, development in the guise of progress, and climate crisis.  We as indigenous people have additional barriers, we need to acknowledge these barriers are born from generational traumas like Boarding Schools, forced adoption, relocation. Laws like, March 30, 1883, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price created the Code of Indian Offenses that made our cultural practices illegal until August 11th, 1978 when Jimmy Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. These are just some of the barriers created to keep indigenous people from indigenous knowledge.

We, as individual Indigenous people and as a collective of over 500 recognized and unrecognized nations, we are left with the aftermath of all these trans-generational traumas and the elders leaving this world before we could learn, have a tremendous responsibility. We are at a crossroad where we really have to come together to lock down the how and why of protecting our ways, our teachings, and the passing down of our roles and responsibilities. It is a lot, we as indigenous people have been forced to walk between the western world and our indigenous one. We all may choose different paths or tried to remain in one world versus walking between, but we all deserve the right to choose. Especially when faced with an overbearing westernized conceptualization of who we can and cannot be as indigenous people.

The Nakani Native Program is running full force to open up traditional knowledge, to give indigenous people access to medicines, to help displaced indigenous people like myself the right to return to our roots in the name of true healing. Western medicine and the underground drug industries take a plant, sap, or animal in its original form and pervert it to make certain effects stronger, last longer, or to create an addictive edge. All medicine comes from a natural form or source found in our natural world. Indigenous people around the world know these properties and instinctually honor the collection, use, and careful discontinuation of these medicines for the good of the people. Whereas western and illegal drug industries take from the plant, body, or environment to reincorporate into “pharmaceuticals products” they can then sell for profit. The regulation, over harvesting of natural plants to be used for profit does significant harm to our plant nations. While western medicine may have good intentions, there is still something to be lost, a connection, the true value of our relationship with these original medicines. That is why we as indigenous people need our healers, the knowledge to collect these medicines, and the know how to use them safely with the respect and love our plant and animal nations deserve.

This is why, I am so grateful to the Nakani Native Program for helping to bring this knowledge forward. With the weight of their responsibilities, Nakani Native Program is taking the necessary steps to educate native communities about traditional medicines while breaking down barriers put up by westernized colonization, pollution, development, and climate crisis. Thank you, Nakani Native Program, I look forward to see how you continue to use the Healthier Here Medicaid Transformation Project funds to bring indigenous knowledge to the forefront in healing our indigenous people.

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