On the days Wanda Bearquiver Bulletti couldn’t get out of bed because of depression and pain, she wore out the battery on her phone calling for help. She wasn’t trying to get medical care for herself. Her daughter, Courtney Cummings, said her mother’s concern extended to the wider Native American community in Richmond.
Bulletti, who battled depression, often dealt with doctors who had never treated Native American patients. The doctors simply prescribed medication for back pain. Bulletti was convinced that individual healing was tied to healing for the whole community.
“For Native Americans it’s not a brain chemistry problem. It’s a response to genocide,” Janet King, of the Native American Health Center in Oakland, said. Courtney Cummings traces her own struggles with school and substance abuse to the historical trauma passed down through generations of her family. Cummings’ grandparents told her their teachers hit the pupils if they spoke the Arikara language in boarding school. “So I grew up scared of teachers,” said Cummings, who never graduated from high school.
In 2000 Bulletti finally found a psychiatrist sensitive to Native American patients. She told her daughter she was diagnosed with depression. “Immediately I was like, ‘What? You’re not crazy,’” Cummings said. Native Americans resent being stigmatized as having mental health issues, according to King. Cummings prefers to see healing as a part of the traditional concept of the medicine wheel. For her, the medicine wheel envisions harmony in four parts, representing mental, physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
When Buletti’s mental and physical well-being improved, she wanted other Native Americans in Richmond to have the opportunity to heal through their culture. So, she wore out the battery on her phone calling Janet King to create a healing space in Contra Costa County. Bulletti offered her small front room if needed.
In 2004, the state Mental Health Services Act became law. Through a 1 percent property tax, the MHSA funds mental health prevention and intervention programs in California counties. King was instrumental in ensuring that Native Americans be identified as an underserved population qualifying for these programs. “If it isn’t spelled out, Native Americans always get overlooked,” said King.
Native Americans are only 1.2 percent of the population in Richmond, according to Census estimates. Administrators from Contra Costa mental health asked King to connect them with this small community. On a stormy evening, February 2, 2008, 16 people gathered at the Richmond library to participate in a focus group.
Participants primarily identified the need for accurate education and counseling. However, Native Americans don’t need individual or formal counseling, said King. ”When native people get together they help each other out. They give each other advice and share resources.” Richmond participants wanted a space where elders could have talking circles, where they could help youth navigate the non-Native community.
Parents wanted schools to include the Native American perspective on Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. One teen told a story about bringing sage to school for cultural show and tell. She said she was escorted out by a uniformed police officer who thought she had drugs. Focus group participants wanted a place to teach the youth their cultural heritage. “We know that Natives who are engaged in community are less likely to commit suicide, drop out, join a gang, or despair,” said King.
The Native Wellness Center officially opened its doors in the old Greyhound station near 23rd St and Macdonald Ave, October 16. Wanda Bearquiver Bulletti died before her vision came to fruition. But her daughter is following in her footsteps as a prevention assistant at the center. “My mom still guides me today,” said Cummings. The center was dedicated to Bulletti during the opening ceremony. King said Bulletti was a shy and quiet woman. “She had the voice of a little singing bird. That singing bird was able to make change.”
The center focuses on the mental and cultural well-being of Native Americans in Richmond. Support groups for elders, parents and youth already happen on a weekly basis. Cummings is also planning cultural activities such as drumming and regalia making. However, no medical services are provided at the Richmond office. Cummings refers clients with medical needs to the Oakland clinic. Cummings said the doors are open to everyone. “If you want to learn more about us,” says Cummings. “Come down to the Wellness Center and say, ‘I want to learn more about you.’ Everyone is invited.”