Montana State University

Messengers deliver new tool to enhance traditional Crow health care

July 23, 2007 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU news

Alma Hogan Snell, a Crow ethnobotanist and grandaughter of the late Crow medicine woman Pretty Shield, explains traditional healing and wellness philosophies in "Akbali'a Balehawase' I'tchiok: Medical People Take Good Care of Us." The half-hour DVD used to educate IHS health care workers about Crow customs was made by Messengers for Health, an award-winning community based health system on the Crow Reservation and based at MSU. MSU photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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A group of health care workers on the Crow Indian Reservation has made a new tool to help healthcare providers understand traditional Crow healing practices.

The Messengers for Health, a group of Crow women who provide informal healthcare information through traditional tribal networks, has made "Akbali'a Balehawase' I'tchiok: Medical People Take Good Care of Us," a half-hour-long DVD that is being used to educate IHS health care workers about Crow customs.

The group, which is funded by the American Cancer Society in connection with work at Montana State University, hopes the DVD will help healthcare providers' ability to communicate and work with members of the Crow Nation. In turn, they hope that informed health care providers will ease the doubts and mistrust that tribal members sometimes have about traditional American medicine and/or the Indian Health Service.

The video explains Crow healing traditions that healthcare providers might not understand. For instance, members of the tribe are filmed explaining the use of burning sweet grass, traditional herbs and traditional Crow relationships that affect patient care.

Alma Knows His Gun McCormick, the co-project coordinator, said that in its first two months the DVD has made a difference.

"Different organizations here have taken the DVD and liked it so well they've distributed it around the state," McCormick said. She said that as a result of the video and her work with the Messengers, she and Suzanne Christopher, an MSU professor of health and human development who is the principal investigator on the American Cancer Society Society's $1.52 million grant, will speak at the Mayo Clinic and the American Public Health Association Conference about community-based participatory research. CBPR is the term used for research programs that are conducted in the field and in partnership between communities and universities, rather than in labs. CBPR is proving to be particularly effective in ethnic communities, McCormick said.

"Our community decides what direction we will go with our project," McCormick said

The 35 women who make up the Messengers, now in their fifth year of "kitchen table" health education, and the project's advisory board voted last year to make the video to tackle the fear that many members of the tribe have about going to the Indian Health Service for health care. Christopher explained that much of the fear stems from rumors or mistreatment many decades old, but other members of the tribe also complain that the health care providers at the health service don't understand some of their cultural needs when it comes to treatment. The clinic is the only health care facility for many people on the reservation. As a result, some Crow develop health care problems that are quite advanced before they seek health care.

Gene Brodeur, recently retired from Montana Public TV based at MSU, and Eric Chaikin, a graduate of MSU's master's in natural history and documentary filmmaking program, produced the video. They worked for eight months with the Messengers' advisory board and university staff and students.

In addition to the DVD, the Messengers distribute health-care material through the same web of communication that the women of the tribe have used for decades. Christopher has used the Crow women's network as a model for a new community-based health care technique to combat cervical cancer, which was at epidemic proportions on the Crow Reservations. The Messengers' technique seems to work. Christopher noted that changes since the program began include increased knowledge about cervical cancer and Pap tests, women becoming more comfortable discussing cancer and women's health issues, and improved regularity in women receiving Pap tests. Additionally, the program is ready to expand to male health concerns and to other reservations.

Ronit Elk of the American Cancer society says the team of Christopher, who is a Ph.D., and McCormick, who is a leader in her community, is so successful that Elk has used them for other programs across the country and Christopher is now on an ACS funding review committee.

"Suzanne and Alma are real role models for us," said Ronit Elk of the American Cancer Society. "You don't know how many times I have had them talk at (ACS) presentations and afterward they have everyone in tears," Elk said. "(McCormick and Christopher) click on a personal level. What they have is a complete partnership."

McCormick said that she is thankful that the Messengers approach to health care is working on her reservation and may spread to other reservations soon.

"Every day when I drive the roads out here I give my thanks for the work we are doing and the help it is giving our people," McCormick said.

Those interested in obtaining a copy of the DVD may contact Christopher at (406) 994-6321 or e-mailing her at

To view an excerpt of "Akbali'a Balehawase' I'tchiok: Medical People Take Good Care of Us," go to:

Suzanne Christopher (406) 994-6321,