― Chief Seattle, Suquamish Chief
A quarter century ago there was a crisis in Ottawa County. There was a toxic plague settling in on our children, a totally preventable disease was infecting one out of eight of the children in Miami and in the other towns north of us the numbers were higher and higher still. A seemingly invisible poison was stealing I.Q. points from our young before they reached first grade.
The EPA descended on us and began doing the big things they could do right away to protect our children. They were digging up lead mining waste from school yards, playgrounds and parks. But it would be decades before they could remove all the waste that children were exposed to each day.
The dilemma of the great unmet need to protect children could not be met by the Health Department's efforts alone. Two years before LEAD Agency was born, Cherokee Volunteer Society members at Miami High School were doing what they could do. What was that? Defeating lead poisoning by education. Yes, teaching moms all they could do in their own homes to reduce exposure to their kids, but the next step was making sure the littlest of children knew what they could do to save their very own futures. They could learn how to wash their little hands. These messages were told and Susan Waldron wore her "bee antennas" during blood lead testing sessions.
Oklahoma University researchers took another approach with a federally funded program they titled TEAL: Tribal Efforts Against Lead. They hoped to engage the tribes in the massive effort to lower lead levels in children and hired a research assistant, Sally WhiteCrow to get that done.
It didn't take Sally long to figure out the way she would engage the tribes and what they would be called. She based back to her own culture, being a member of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, with Quapaw heritage, she understood the basic respect elders claimed in those tribes and how strong the clan structure has been. Seeking and receiving support from her own elders, TEAL's lay health advisors would become known as Clanmothers.
Sally recruited elders from each of the nine tribes, and was surprised when men asked to be allowed to join and would take the name Clanfathers. Over 40 members were trained to understand lead poisoning and how to prevent exposures to our young. Then they were tasked with teaching their families and their neighbors what they had learned.
Ms WhiteCrow grew the confidence of the Clanmothers and Clanfathers by challenging them to think bigger, widen their circles, present information at powwows and tribal gatherings. The shyest elders became outspoken, competent community educators. Then Sally widened the circle even more and set the elders out to the general public and off they went to the county fair, day cares and grade schools.
Sally told me years later, "It was a wonderful, wonderful project. It was certainly more than I ever expected. When I went in I was just looking for a job. But it became a way of life. I loved all those people we worked with."
After awhile these elders were going public and speaking out at the County Commission meetings and presenting resolutions. They sat down together to develop teaching materials, wrote letters to senators, governors, and to the EPA.
I know this because I could not turn Sally down. I wanted to be a Clanmother too. So for nearly ten years over forty tribal elders had another mother. We would all claim her as our own and to this day, those of us still living know we lost our other mother last week when Sally left us orphaned. What else she left behind are children who were able to grow up healthier and more competent because their lead levels had been reduced by the actions these elders did to educate them and their families.
Midway through the TEAL Project Miami High School students published an anthology and Sally came to the book signing party held downtown at the bookstore. I asked her if she would share her thoughts about the environment with the students. She paused only a moment and said they should respect our earth as our mother since we have only one mother.
And last week I was reminded of her words: Only one mother.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim