Sonoma County Indian Health Project nears half century as service hub for North Coast tribes
The Sonoma County Indian Health Project has a video montage posted to its Facebook page of local Native Americans who graduated last year from high school and college. Proudly displayed are the names of the newly minted alumni, their photographs, schools and their tribe.
It’s an usual role for a health center - a warm chronicle of local youth - but the Indian Health Project isn’t like other medical facilities.
“This is much more than a clinic. This is like a lot of families’ second home. This is their extended community,” said Silver Galleto, chief operations officer. “People come here for all of the resources we have to offer beyond just medical.”
The nonprofit Sonoma County Indian Health Project offers medical care, behavioral and nutritional health services, dental care and a pharmacy. Physical therapy was added last year and this month a new wellness center with acupuncture will open.
But Native American patients also come for the workshops and social events that draw on traditional culture, including basket weaving, beading, cooking, mediation, drum circles, regalia and wellness.
“Indian people have a lot of different beliefs, and we embrace those and then add those to the Western medicine practices, as well. So it’s kind of merging the two worlds into one to give the best form of health care,” Galleto said.
Founded in 1971 with a small state grant and only four employees, the health center now has an annual budget of $21 million and more than 170 employees. It serves nearly 4,000 patients.
“We are making sure that our people are being taken care of in the way that we feel they should be,” said CEO Betty Arterberry, who was a part-time receptionist when health center first opened nearly a half century ago.
The health center also does outreach to incarcerated tribal members and to remote locations, including monthly medical visits to the Kashia reservation in Stewart’s Point.
“We are wherever our people are,” Arterberry said.
A satellite clinic reopened last year in Point Arena, where it operates four days a week for medical and behavioral health services.
The new wellness center will open this month at the main Santa Rosa location. It will include three new examination rooms, an office and an open space with gym equipment in a remodeled area where medical records were formerly kept. All records are now electronic.
Patients can come in for massages, physical therapy and acupuncture - and find more holistic options when it comes to managing physical pain.
“There’s different types of healing and we want to make sure that we’re offering our traditional form as well as the modern,” Galleto said.
Challenges faced by the health center include funding, major health disparities compared to all other racial and ethnic groups and entrenched outside bias about Native American health care.
“For a long time people didn’t value Indian practices of healing as being valid. They’re doing all of these things that we’ve been doing for hundreds of years,” said Galleto, citing meditation and herbal remedies as an example. “Now they’re trying to adopt some of our practices, so the tables have turned.”
For a variety of reasons, including lack of health care funding and discrimination, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a life expectancy 51/2 years shorter than the rest of the U.S. population, according to the Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides medical care to about 2.2 million Native Americans.
Leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries and diabetes.
“Indians have the highest health disparities. You name it. We take the lead in terms of the worst statistics of anybody out there,” Galleto said.
More than any other racial group in the United States, Native Americans have the highest chance of having diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - making the disease a big focus of care for the Sonoma County Indian Health Project.
Patients with diabetes are treated through a program offered at the Indian Health Project and developed by Kaiser Permanente called PHASE, or Preventing Heart Attacks and Strokes Every day. Patients see a clinical pharmacist, a provider, a nurse, a community health representative and a nutritionist all in one visit, initially for an hour. Then they have 30-minute follow-up visits with any or all of them, depending on preference.
“That’s really not something that you’ll find anywhere else - that you could put that many resources into one visit for a patient, but we found a lot of success because a lot of patients just feel like they don’t truly understand the disease,” said Jennifer Durst, chief quality and compliance officer.
Another program offered by the health center is called Aunties and Uncles. It’s “a prevention and early intervention program that aims to reduce suicide and depressive symptoms and increase mental health awareness” among Native American teens. They host talking circles and family fun nights.
For example, the project offers a pine needle basket weaving workshop as a group activity that Durst said helps with conditions including depression, anxiety, substance use, which are often rooted in stress and trauma.
“A lot of our patients enjoy connectedness, community and peace that can come with that. Plus when you’re doing basket weaving you’re able to just chat, and I think that experiencing togetherness through talking is also really important,” she said. “That’s not something that you would find at another clinic.”
The nonprofit is hosting a traditional beading workshop next month by an artist of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians who learned beading from her mother and other elders. There’s also a family fun night with hoop dancing by a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe of Arizona.
In March, there will be a traditional foods workshop offered by a weaver from the Yokayo and Sherwood Valley Rancherias. And there’s a six-week leadership program for Native teens.
Teens also have after-school math and English tutoring session every Tuesday and Thursday and the health center.
Enrolled, documented tribal members are guaranteed free health care at the center, although health insurance is accepted.
“Although it’s the federal government’s responsibility to provide us health care in exchange for taking our land, we only receive 50% of the funding that it takes to fulfill our need. So we have to be creative in terms of grants and tapping into all of these other sources of funding to meet the needs of our people,” Galleto said.
Donations can be made online at scihp.org.