FORT BELKNAP - The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes near Fort Belknap are preparing to open a new health center — one that officials say is long overdue.
“We really need this. We needed it, you know, 30 years ago, you know, we're going to get it, though," observed Fort Belknap Councilman Warren Morin.
The Tribes have secured a grant of $10 million that will go towards building a new health and wellness center.
Tribal members hope that the center will transcend the community into a higher quality of life, something this community has been waiting for.
“Still thank the power of prayer, the prayers. Everyone out there will get it," Morin said.
It’s a community trying to better itself.
“Right here is the medical wing I was telling you about," Island Mountain Development Group project manager Bum Stiffarm said while showing a rendering of the project. "We're going to have a lot of behavioral health services, telehealth, medicine.”
The new center will be called the Anaakyaaniiin Wellness Center and will provide services for healthcare as well as departments for community access and education.
“They really made this wait worthwhile, because like I was saying, it took nine months to get this thing funded," Stiffarm said. "We had to jump through so many hoops.”
Morin reflected on growing up in the community and how he and others want to make changes and additions that will be an improvement to the well-being of the Reservation.
“Well, I think it will be just a huge improvement on their life as a whole. Like I said before, it's a dessert of dreams here. We want to change that.”
With a Reservation that is miles from cities in both directions, Morin says it’s normal for children and families to not keep up to date with proper healthcare both mentally and physically.
“I just think these kids need a new chance. I don't think people understand how important health is, especially natives, because, you know, a lot of these kids aren't able to dream,” Morin said. “I was one of them. You know, I was watching our sun go down by the bear paws every evening, wondering what's on the other side, you know?”
The wellness center is a bright light at the end of the tunnel for the community.
“You know, everybody wants to know that we've come a long way," Stiffarm told MTN News. "So we're pretty happy about that, but more happy about anything we can bring back to the people of Fort Belknap.”
“And it's a good thing. It's a good model. And I hope that what we're doing here, someone else could see that, take it and do it for their people," Morrin concluded.
The following is a news release from Island Mountain Development Group:
A north-central Montana healthcare consortium, led by the Fort Belknap Indian Community and Bear Paw Development Corporation together, received a $10 million dollar USDA Emergency Rural Healthcare Grant. The grant award will enable construction of a wellness facility with a significant increase of healthcare services and resources within the Fort Belknap Indian Community.
Upon completion of the wellness center, an integrated health care model will incorporate primary care, substance abuse services, behavioral health services, physical therapy and diabetes treatment with traditional cultural beliefs and healing practices of the Aaniiih and Nakoda peoples on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. The healthcare program will provide equitable, high-quality healthcare services to Fort Belknap and Hi-Line residents
Island Mountain Development Group (IMDG), a for-profit corporation on the Fort Belknap Reservation, in partnership with the Fort Belknap Health Department, will coordinate and manage the delivery of the Aaniiih Nakoda Health Care Model Program. IMDG will oversee the Anaakyaaniiin Wellness Center's construction schedule.
The USDA grant is an additional resource that enhances the $11 million dollar allocation received from the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council's American Rescue Plan Act, State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. Following extensive community engagement sessions in each of the Fort Belknap communities in 2021, the FBIC Council identified the need for better access to healthcare, and especially behavioral health services to address the ongoing youth suicide crisis, as a significant priority.
The Anaakyaaniiin Wellness Center includes a recreation center, fitness facility, medical wing, and nutrition room/community kitchen. The Center will provide essential services to keep Fort Belknap and Hi-Line residents healthy and serve as a gathering place for healthy activities. Additionally, the Center will offer extensive telehealth opportunities to connect especially youth and veterans with caregivers.
Healthcare has always been a Council priority and that need became even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fort Belknap community members' COVID infection rates were some of the highest in the region. The pandemic exacerbated mental health concerns in the Community, as evidenced by a dramatic increase in suicide among Fort Belknap youth (particularly young females).
"The Fort Belknap Indian Community is grateful to the Administration and USDA. As a result of this award, we can finally provide high-quality healthcare to our Tribal members, many of whom have never had access or limited access to such services, especially on the southern end of our Reservation" said Jeffrey Stiffarm, President of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council. "The grant will help us build a state-of-the-art healthcare facility in our Hays community and, as
such, tribal members won't have to travel great distances to get the healthcare they need and deserve."
Additional consortium members include Bear Paw Development Corporation (lead applicant), Opportunity Link, Inc., Montana Healthcare Foundation, and the Fort Belknap Community Economic Development Corporation and supported by Montana Healthcare Foundation, Aaniiih Nakoda College, the University of North Dakota Indigenous Health Program, and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Each consortium member will contribute to community planning, healthcare programs, and implementation of services to make the project successful for Aaniiih and Nakoda people, as well as other FBIC residents and Hi-Line neighbors. “The Anaakyaaniiin Wellness Center will be open to everyone and, we hope, become an example of excellence in rural healthcare delivery and culturally-informed wellness practices,” said President Stiffarm.
“Bear Paw Development Corporation is grateful for the decades-long partnership we have with the Fort Belknap Indian Community and for the opportunity to be involved with this incredible project,” said Paul Tuss, Executive Director. “This Wellness Center will be a game-changer for the residents of Fort Belknap and will significantly enhance the quality of life of this special part of northern Montana for years to come.”
Contact Camille Stein, Fort Belknap Indian Community Public Relations Officer, at (406) 353-8349 or email@example.com, or Jackie Blackbird, IMDG Chief Communications Officer, at (406) 353-5437 or firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.