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Oyate Health Center Headed in the Right Direction

By Brandon Ecoffey

Communications Director GPTLHB

The Oyate Health Center in Rapid City continues to make improvements each day.

Wait times for patients are down, while users of the tribally run clinic are rising. The facility just implemented a new texting system for its patients that will reduce no-shows. Two full-time drivers have been added to the staff to help our relatives more easily access care. The organization has even established a revamped behavioral health department on the northside of Rapid City that will continue expanding services and improving care for Native American people living in Pennington County.

The drive to expand the Behavioral Health Department (at the 725 LaCrosse location) and the addition of a ride service and texting service for patients were at the direction of the community who said they wanted these changes in a Community Needs Assessment that I helped distribute in late 2019. These advancements were made in only 18 months and are a preview of what will eventually become the preeminent model for Native American Healthcare on the Great Plains.

Serving as the communications director for the Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board, I have witnessed the passion of my fellow employees as they have poured their heart into proving that tribal citizens and tribal organizations are in the best position to provide care for our people.

The GPTLHB has more than 150 employees who are tribal citizens. Almost 50% of them are Oglala Sioux, 20% enrolled at Cheyenne River, and 20% are Rosebud Sioux. The remainder comes from other tribal nations committed to proving this model of care works. Not surprisingly, the makeup of the population of people who use the facility is broken down in almost the exact same way with nearly half of patients coming from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Many of these employees are also landowners, tribal business owners, and contributors to our community who want the support of tribal leaders. It takes time to implement long-needed changes to a healthcare system rooted in colonialism and a belief that Lakota people could never manage their affairs.  Even in the face of a global pandemic, changes that have been asked of IHS for decades are rolling out in less than two years under tribal management.

While I try not to speak for the Health Board’s staff, I am confident in saying that those of us who have joined the organization in the last 18-months have done so to improve the healthcare of our people and exercise tribal sovereignty in partnership with our tribal governments.

We forget that the decision made to “638” the Rapid City service unit came at the request of the community, who watched as the Indian Health Service mismanaged resources and reduced services for patients. The final straw was the loss of emergency room services and the near-death of a baby at the Sioux San hospital, as documented by the New York Times.

Ironically, this history of failures by the Indian Health Service in Pennington County has been largely absent from the conversation. Instead, some tribal leaders have been influenced negatively about the Oyate Health Center by a disinformation campaign, connected to a lawsuit that has been unanimously rejected by tribal, state, and federal courts.

In the next couple of months, this lawsuit challenging the ability of tribal nations to exercise tribal sovereignty and self-determine, will almost certainly be dismissed by the Supreme Court. Then, the strawmen issues and half-truths tied to the project will also wither away.

It is time for tribal leaders to go to bat for those of us who believe that our people can reach heights the federal government never wanted us to see. As an Oglala who grew up in Pine Ridge, I implore our tribal leaders to support their constituents working towards a better healthcare future at the Oyate Health Center.

*Brandon Ecoffey is the communications director for the Great Plains Tribal Leaders’ Health Board and an award-winning journalist and editor who was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He earned degrees in Native American Studies and Government from Dartmouth College and has been published in Indian Country Today, Lakota Country Times, Native Sun News, Rapid City Journal, Native Max magazine and LastRealIndians.com.