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September 22, 2005

Art Beat

Health and Well Being


artwork titled Healing Our Way by Julian LangI watched the Potawot Health Village go up in 2001-02 I drove by it on the freeway every day on my way home. Once I went to a volunteer work day and helped with weeding and such in their organic farm, and because I'm involved with the art community, I knew that Potawot had art work in the building.

This month, Potawot Health Village hosts its first solo art show, exhibiting the work of local artist Lyn Risling. She got a lot of good press at the beginning of the month. Perhaps you went to the opening on Arts Arcata! night. If you did, did you stop and wonder why art is the central part of a health center? I did, and I've also wondered about the organic garden, the wetlands restoration and the recycled materials used in the building.

RIGHT: "Healing Our Way" by Lin Risling
[corrected from print edition]

And why is it called a Health "Village?" I was curious about these things, but it wasn't just idle curiosity. All of these things seemed so "right" to me for a health clinic. So I decided to find out more.

I spoke with Paula "Pimm" Allen, who curates the art shows, cares for Potawot Village's basket collection, and works with the public, among other things. She told me about the history of the United Indian Health Services, which has been in existence for 35 years, long before the creation of the Potawot Village.

It started out as a consortium of concerned Indian women who wanted access to better health care for their families. The organization grew and grew until there came a need for

a larger facility and more services. The dream of the Potawot Village began (officially) about 15 years ago, with a feasibility study for a new clinic. The result of the next decade of planning and dreaming and going to meetings is the Village,

"A Place of Our Own." That phrase means much more to the native community then I can express here. It is truly a place where the clients have a sense of ownership, and that is particularly important to a people who have lost so much.

The Potawot Village is not just concerned with the health of individuals or, rather, people there don't feel as if focusing on specific ailments is the best way to care for individuals. They believe that the health of an individual depends on the health of the community and the environment in which that person lives. Conversely, the health of the community and the environment depend on the health of the people (and animals and plants) that inhabit them. To me, this is holism in the deepest sense of the word.

The native philosophy of health and healing differs from western medicine in that it does not separate physical, spiritual and emotional health. Consistently,

it does not separate art from daily living, as European culture does. Europeans tend to think that a medical facility should be about medicine and an art gallery should

be about art and a hardware store should be about hardware. Well, perhaps the hardware store should just be about hardware, but why exactly should we try to strip away all other human concerns from a medical facility? What is art about if it is not about life?

My understanding of the Indian philosophy is that surrounding yourself with beauty, creating beautiful things and caring about beauty and quality of craftsmanship, are an integral part of a healthy, full life. The word "artistic" comes to mean "thoughtfully done," so that the Village, created with consideration to culture, community and environment, becomes an artistic expression. In the words of Potawot's staff and board, "The Vision of Potawot is as much an artistic expression of dreams for a healthy American Indian community as it is a way to provide modern health care to clients."

Renewal is a word that came up a lot in my research for this article. Renewal of culture is an integral part of the Health Village's mission, it is the theme of Risling's art exhibit, "Renewing Our Way" and it is also an important part of Indian culture itself. Risling told me about yearly ceremonies for renewal and healing that are ancient traditions of the native tribes, and many of her paintings depict these ceremonies. One painting, "Healing, Our Way," depicts the Brush Dance. This annual summer event brings people together and everyone brings good feelings, thoughts and prayers. Its purpose is to heal sick children or bring them luck in the future, but in a sense, it is as much for the participants and the community as it is for the children.

The recurring theme in Risling's depictions of ceremonies and traditional stories is the return to ancient wisdom. In my discussion with Risling, her love for the beauty and power of the traditional ways of her tribe was palpable. I asked her specifically about the role that she sees for her art. To her it is a way to express that beauty and the healing aspect of her culture.

This philosophy about art and healing is based on the idea that everything affects everything else. For example, many of the serious health issues Indians are faced with are directly related to radical changes in the way they live their lives, brought about by contact with European settlers. Renewal of cultural traditions is part of the solution, and art can be a means of renewing and educating about those traditions. Thus, culture and art are as important to healing as insulin, heart surgery or nutrition.

If you know anything about Native American history, you are aware of how much damage has been done to the culture. But I think that those of European descent (and I include myself here) don't have a real understanding of what that means. Except for Indians, no person in the United States understands what it is like to live in a place that's been inhabited by your own people for thousands of years. Not one of us understands what it is to know a place in your blood. I believe that Europeans have damaged their own spirits by compartmentalizing their lives to the extent that culture is something relegated to museums, while daily life is ruled by science, business decisions and a "work ethic." There is something to be learned from a people who never bought into such a spiritless way of living, however forcefully it was thrust upon them.


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