Native Stand fights against HIV

By Karli Miller It is a deadly sickness; numbers of cases are increasing and it is affecting a young age group. It is the eighth leading cause of death among Native Americans ages 15-34 living on or near a reservation. HIV/AIDS is increasing more rapidly in the Native American population than in any other ethnic group in the U.S., according to author Hilary N. Weaver, Through Indigenous Eyes: Native Americans and the HIV Epidemic. Some steps have been made nationwide to prevent the cases of AIDS from increasing, but little has been done locally until now. Linda Gokee-Rindal, a UMD student specializing in Indian and Women Studies, got involved with the issue when Planned Parenthood was given a grant to start a peer education program for Native Americans. She is now leading an educational program called Native Stand that will start this summer. It is a program through Planned Parenthood for Native American females ages 13 through 19 that is eight weeks long. There are two sessions per week with two daylong retreats. Based on the number of applicants and where they are from, the program will be offered in the Cloquet area or in Duluth at the Teen Resource Center. The main focus of the program is to not only educating the girls on HIV, but to also teach them about general sexual health, birth control options, family planning and healthy relationships. “Being a Native American myself helps me relate to them and get my message across,” Gokee-Rindal said. People are informed that HIV is an issue among Native Americans, but few are educated in the cause of this epidemic. Melissa Walls, a UMD professor with a Native American background, does a lot of research among many Native American communities and has found this to be true. “I always see these headlines in the newspaper about how another Native American has AIDS, but never any explanation as to why this is happening.” Walls said. Native Americans suffer great historical trauma that has lead to mental health issues like a lack of self-esteem, alcoholism, and other mental health issues. People abusing alcohol with a low self-esteem may not have much respect for themselves, this can cause them to neglect their bodies in ways they shouldn’t, and have unprotected sex. Part of the Native Stand’s program is to empower the girls to take a leadership role and boost their self-esteem. Historical trauma is a term that has little understanding and appreciation outside of the Native American Community, even at the collegiate level. “I have used the term historical trauma in class, and my students automatically think that I’m pointing fingers, “ Walls said. “That’s just not the case. Traditions have been lessoned and attacked just by the modern culture and society. A tradition that isn’t practiced as much is this puberty ceremony. It is a ceremony that takes place at this point in the young women’s life to celebrate the gift she has been given to reproduce. This tradition regarded women in a respectful light, their bodies included.” Native Stand believes that sex education and awareness is the way to keep young adults from being infected by HIV. Even though HIV and teen pregnancy is skyrocketing among the Native American communities, it is believed among their culture, especially among the elders, to be modest; it is taboo to talk about sex. “People are afraid of comprehensive sex education because they think by talking about it, it will encourage teens to have sex earlier,” Gokee-Rindal said. “This may be in part why HIV education hasn’t reached the Native American community.” Confidentiality and stigma is another hurdle that Native Americans have to overcome while living on a reservation. “On most reservations there is only one or two clinics they can visit, and being in such a small community, everyone will know why they visited the doctor,” said Duluth Education Manager, August Galloway. “Even if they wanted to visit a different clinic, they don’t have the income to afford transportation to get there.” Native Stand has created an easy, confidential, and free way for young adults to get tested for HIV who join the Native Stand Program. “With blood tests you have to follow up with another appointment, and many don’t show up, so they might not know if they tested positive or not. With the tests we have, it is just an oral swab with no follow ups that prove to be 99 percent effective,” Galloway said. There is a great amount of suffering among Native Americans not only nationwide but locally as well. Native Stand is the first organized program that is taking steps to make a difference and rebuild the local Native community. If the program ends up being a success, Planned Parenthood will file for another grant asking for funding for a program similar to Native Stand for young Native American males. “There is a definite need of some kind of intervention, and I’m glad that Native Stand is making some steps in that direction,” Walls said. “If the girls are going in with their friends, the people they associate with and spend their time with, they can be leaders in their community; there is strength in numbers.”

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