The Healing Way

Posted on April 22, 2008 – 4:57 PM | by OldManFoster
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by Eve Imagine

At work, Terra Lopez has a view down J Street. She sees an ordinary building, but its logo captivates her: a bear paw circumscribed by the words “Sacramento Native American Health Center.” Last fall she discovered the true meaning of holistic healing in the building with the Native American imagery. Lopez is of the Shoshone tribe, so why hadn’t she known earlier that such a place existed in Midtown?

Sacramento Native American Health CenterOne Friday night last November, Lopez and her Evening Episode bandmates were loading up after playing a local gig when Terra cut the hell out of her hand. “It looked like scrapes across the knuckles,” she explains. “I had to work in the morning, so I washed the wounds with antiseptic and bandaged my fingers.” Lopez is a healthy, self-reliant 22-year-old and her cuts didn’t seem serious, nothing she couldn’t soak in peroxide, and certainly no cause to see a doctor since Lopez, like many Sacramento artists, has a day job that doesn’t provide health insurance. After two weeks of bandages and ointments, her pinky had doubled in size and a red line was traveling from her knuckles up her forearm. She rushed to the Sacramento Native American Health Center where the doctor diagnosed the severity of her infection. “When he told me I could’ve died had it spread any higher…” Lopez shakes her head.
“Everyone was amazing,” Lopez recalls. “They consoled me. I was scared, in pain. I got emotional, but they made me feel safe. They couldn’t do the surgery there, but they cleaned my wound and guided me through the process of getting to the hospital.” The SNAHC didn’t charge Lopez for the consultation, and Executive Director Britta Guerrero found the most affordable surgery with a payment plan.

“I needed major surgery: general anesthetic, hospital stay, one-month’s supply of antibiotics,” Lopez remembers, “with a total cost of only $4,000. Without the SNAHC’s support I would have been looking at thousands more.” When you’re young and healthy, you don’t expect to be close to death. For Lopez, this painful experience and the healing lessons she learned created a bridge to other urban Indians.

In her office, decorated with Native American art, artifacts and literature, Guerrero explains contemporary life for at least one Native woman: “I feel lucky to be here. I’m San Carlos Apache from Arizona. I’m an urban Indian. The center’s objective is to give all Indians a culturally relevant source that’s accessible and affordable. No matter your tribe, if you’re an Indian in Sacramento, you’ll find healthcare delivered the Indian way.

“Through the 1970s Native people were relocated. Children were punished for speaking their language. Indians had to suppress their identities and accept a life of poverty where they were given unhealthy, processed foods and alienated from their tribes. Today our people are proud and empowered. We’re educating and caring for our community in culturally sensitive ways.”

Britta GuerreroWhile the SNAHC provides universal health services, Guerrero explains that there’s no division between healthcare and the individual as a member of a community, “Whether teaching nutrition or supporting breastfeeding mothers, our way is a holistic way.” One way the SNAHC differs from other healthcare providers in our region is its inclusion of dental care.

“We provide wellness,” she says. “Yes, we have AA, but we use an Indian model. We have talking-circles and positive Indian parenting, alongside primary care. We’re an athletic people with teams in local soccer, basketball and softball leagues.”

Marbella Sula of the UC Davis School of Medicine’s Center for Reducing Health Disparities stated it clearly: “When we ask, ‘what does providing culturally appropriate services look like?’ we point to the SNAHC.”

All the SNAHC programs, groups and services are treated from a Native perspective, such as the Talking Uncles Sober Support Group. The SNAHC holds cooking classes and luncheons; Guerrero states, “Because of what’s been done in the past, too many of us have been raised eating foods that are killing us. Here, we break that cycle, returning to foods our population is meant to eat. We have an extreme problem with obesity and diabetes, but we’re combating that. I see urban Indian families recovering. As their health improves, they tend to connect more with their ancestry. We were almost annihilated, but now we’re thriving and we want to be recognized.”

The 2007 Mayor’s Population Report shows 57,000 Native people in Sacramento County. The SNAHC promotes Indian sovereignty, but Guerrero worries that too many Californians may solely base their image of contemporary Native Americans as people who live off casinos.

Most Native Americans don’t live off gambling, and the SNAHC doesn’t receive gambling revenues. They welcome and serve all tribes and their funding comes from grants, federal subsidies and patients.

Guerrero notes, “You can get off a bus from Florida, walk in off the street and find a community that you identify with. An urban Indian lives among non-native people. We understand the need for some assimilation and the need for retreat from that world.”

The SNAHC is significant to Sacramento. Its clinic doors are open to anyone who qualifies for Medicare. For documented Native Americans, like Lopez, all services are discounted 50% to 60% and a sliding payment scale is available for non-Native Americans.

Four months post-surgery, Lopez points to her scars. “I could’ve died. I credit the SNAHC. Now when I see the doctor, Britta, and other staff, I feel included in something. I’ve lived most of my life in Sacramento, never a reservation. I’m a proud Shoshone, but, except for my grandma, I haven’t really had connections to other Native Americans.”

There’s a yearning in Lopez’s tone. Her Shoshone mineral stone, red feather tattoos and maturing balance of scars are the marks of a strong, youthful artist finding her way as she makes a life among the Midtown tribes.

For more information, visit the Sacramento Native American Health Center at 2020 J St., go online to, or call 341-0575.

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