Listening to the Stories Underneath the Work We Do

Paula Allen and R. Lena Richardson talk about traditional arts and culture as resources for Native community health.

By R. Lena Richardson

"We are really starting to look at … the historical trauma that is a result of the last 150 years, how those things impact individuals’ health."

"When people become more aware of their own strengths, of their own stories and histories, then they start making connections to how they relate to others. It is these relationships that really can create wellness."

Paula Allen was born and raised in Humboldt County and is an active participant in the local cultural traditions and ceremonies of the Karuk and Yurok people. She has worked in the field of American Indian healthcare for over 15 years and currently manages the Traditional Resources Program at United Indian Health Services.

R. Lena Richardson is project coordinator/editor of the Bridge Conversations. In 2008 to 2011, she developed an intergenerational oral history project with activist elders at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Her current project builds relationships between elders and youth in East Multnomah County, Oregon.

UNITED INDIAN HEALTH SERVICES is a nonprofit tribal health consortium serving American Indian communities in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties of Northern California for over 35 years, providing culturally sensitive healthcare services that support and promote wellness for the individual, the family, and the community. The history of United Indian Health Services (UIHS) began in 1968. It was a time when Native activism coincided with the nationwide Civil Rights Movement and the Office of Economic Opportunity programs. Together these factors helped create a new era of self-determination for Indian peoples. In California, where health services were so lacking, Indian groups formed their own health organizations. Each maintained its separate programs, but together they started the California Rural Indian Health Board Inc. (CRIHB), an organization that continues providing its members with a variety of quality improvement and advocacy services. Today, as part of CRIHB, UIHS offers innovative prevention programs, including a nationally renowned diabetes treatment and prevention program and dental, medical, vision, and nutrition services; a pharmacy; counseling; as well as as an increasing array of cultural and arts events.

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R. LENA RICHARDSON: As Paula and I didn’t know each other, we began the conversation with some introductions, specifically with me introducing myself, talking about my work with oral history and with the Arts & Democracy Project. After we got more comfortable with each other, I began to ask Paula about her work.

PAULA ALLEN: I work for a rural tribal health organization. I have been on staff for five years as part of the development of a new program, the Traditional Resources Program. Before that, I was on the board of directors [at UIHS].

The Traditional Resources Program was created in part to provide support for culturally-based community prevention activities that promote community wellness. We recognize that it is important to find a balance between all those things that impact an individual’s health; this includes one’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health in order to truly support wellness for individuals, their families, and our community. We are really starting to look at how the history of the area, the historical trauma that is a result of the last 150 years, how those things impact individuals’ health. We are looking at approaches to connect people to their history and to get people reinvolved with culture as pathways to health. We offer ways to re-expose and reconnect people to traditional arts and culture, the land. We’re fortunate to have people on board who are community activists. These people have their fingers on the pulse of community needs.

Before that, I worked at Humboldt Area Foundation at the Native Cultures Fund, which was parallel work in the arts and culture world. That project supported revival and revitalization for traditional activities in rural California.

Both of those projects were extensions of my work as a bridge person. I think of it as being a community activist, advocate. The reason I’ve been able to do the work I’ve been able to do in arts, culture, and health is because I was born and raised in a traditional family within this community. I’ve been able to draw on resources within the community, living and working here. I’ve been someone that people trust. There can be a lot of emotion involved with sharing our stories with the larger community. What are the ways to share our story that are respectful yet really honest to both sides? It is easy to paint an idealistic picture of communities of color to try to please funders. The biggest role that I see for myself as bridge person is to be honest during the process of sharing those stories. Everyone needs to be accurately represented. Sometimes the challenge is being honest with yourself. But when you are, you make the exchange that much richer. Even if you don’t get that funding, you have maintained integrity for your community’s story. That’s the most important thing.

RICHARDSON: What has helped you to become a bridge person or community advocate?

ALLEN: I think the thing that really first introduced me unofficially to being a community advocate is my upbringing. My family really raised me within the community. I was raised with the understanding that I was responsible not only for myself, but that I also had a responsibility to give back to the community I came from, back to those who provided me with my foundation. I can’t really go out there and make up some song and dance. I’d get called on it. People would call me on it if I wasn’t doing good work. That’s the benefit of being part of a community: There are checks and balances to help keep us grounded to what’s important. The other thing that has encouraged my work in this area have been mentors from within my community, including people from the Humboldt Area Foundation, who have really supported and encouraged me to share our stories with a larger audience. And this was modeled to me by my mentors. For example, my father was on the Humboldt Area Foundation and retired just before I got on the board. His willingness to share his story and the stories from his experiences, and to use those to benefit others by helping to create programs that benefit the entire community, that is the inspiration. And although his story is special to me in particular, it is not entirely unique because there are examples throughout my community of people who work for the betterment of the whole. That’s what a village was about. Our relationships to everything around us are respected and honored, so this tradition of being a community advocate is really just continuing our traditional ways of being.


My training as a bridge person began in the traditional cultural world. With ceremonies, there are these organizing skills, working together for the common good, learning to go with the flow. That was really the training for my work in community organizing. This was something that I learned from my parents, and from others of that generation who were working with their elders to preserve and promote their cultural traditions. They were very involved with the cultural renaissance of sorts that happened in this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and at that same time that was combined with social activism. It really started there. As a community, that was really the beginning of many of the organizations that were created to support education and health, and also the beginning of a real organized return to our cultural traditions and beliefs as a way of life. Our work today is a continuation of that work, building on what they were already working towards.

One of the things my dad always tells me—he is one of my biggest inspirations—is you can’t make or tell a person how to get better or what they should be doing, but you can provide them with the support and foundation they need to make those choices for themselves, in their own time, for their families. His generation provided that for all of us in my generation, and now it’s on our generation and it’s our responsibility to leave something stronger for our kids and grandkids. That’s why this work is really about awareness and empowerment. When people become more aware of their own strengths, of their own stories and histories, then they start making connections to how they relate to others. It is these relationships that really can create wellness. And when rural people, poor people, disenfranchised people become involved in this process, when they can start to see how their lives are interwoven with things happening in other parts of the nation, and other parts of the world, then they can begin to become more responsible for how their lives and actions matter. When you begin to see how your existence is important, when you begin to honor and take responsibility for your place in creation, that can be very empowering and that empowerment can support real change in our world.

RICHARDSON: Can you talk more about your involvement as a bridge person working with arts projects and organizations?

ALLEN: There are some really well-known arts organizations locally—both non-Native-based arts organizations. The Ink People Center for the Arts is a nonprofit arts cooperative and their executive director was very instrumental in working with American Indian artists to support and encourage cultural arts programming for our community, including hosting an annual American Indian art show that really supported our traditional and contemporary artists. She was able to do this because she had worked to gain the trust of bridge people from the community, and also because she believed and recognized that our own community folks and cultural leaders had the knowledge to do the work, but just needed to be empowered and supported to be successful. With her help, and by working together, we had these really amazing art shows and openings. Since that time we have seen American Indian artists show their work throughout the community in both Native and non-Native galleries, and the community art show has been re-established at UIHS and at other tribal organizations. For this to come full circle, to come back to ownership to the community it serves, has been a very important process.

This other arts organization wanted to work locally with the American Indian community and the Latino community and they pulled us in with this cookie-cutter approach. They got this big grant and had their mind set up on how we would fit into their work. That was kind of tough. That was a good lesson for me to realize what my limitations are. I also learned to be an advocate for inclusion at all levels. People of color are asked to do the final touches at the end. To be a token. We’re often not involved in budgeting. I think it’s really important to start empowering bridge people so that they get involved in visioning and getting to the end result.

RICHARDSON: What advice would you offer about navigating between fields and with people whose outlook is less holistic?

ALLEN: The biggest thing is to share stories with each other, across fields and backgrounds. Even the way you started this conversation with a willingness to share a little about yourself, listening, and making sure we schedule enough time for this conversation. You have to learn to be a good listener. All of our histories affect where we are at. I even recently watched that movie, The Namesake, and watching him fight his upbringing in the beginning of the movie and then finding the importance and being empowered to embrace it by the end of the movie, that’s really an important process. People need to be willing to understand how each individual’s unique history impacts how they see the world. We’re so American. We think if we’ve been here two generations, we don’t need to know our histories. All of our histories are important. And it is in the shared histories, the shared experiences, where we can make connections.

RICHARDSON: People can have a fear of exploring histories because of the violence of our histories on this continent.

ALLEN: People think if you are one of the oppressed, maybe it’s easier than if your history is part of the oppressors. But it’s not. All of those choices were forced upon all of us. You have to learn to grow from it. Taking time to own your own story before you go out and learn about others is important. We need to listen to the stories underneath the work we do. It makes you more accepting.

RICHARDSON: What do people in the ‘arts’—perhaps the more mainstream arts field—need to learn from the nonmainstream arts and traditional realm?

ALLEN: It’s important to understand the cultural context that the arts come from. To take time to see how those things are reflected in an arts process. It’s easy to reduce someone to the folk arts. But what is the story behind quilt making and basketry? It’s not just beautiful arts, but environmental lessons, and mentorship between women, and lessons that were taught. These are the contexts for why people participate in arts. I always look for them

RICHARDSON: You mentioned kids … can you talk more about your work with young people?

ALLEN: Kids are the best ones to work with. We found that a lot of those young people who were very involved in their traditional values and ceremonies were the ones who were making it academically. We are trying to find ways of sharing that. We support tribal programs in the area and offer curriculum materials for schools to use that introduce our topics. We help to pull together resources for people and connect people throughout our area.

At our organization, we have our annual youth summer camp that I coordinate. It keeps me going year in and year out. We bring all the kids together at a traditional village site, and the camp includes health education issues, environmental issues, cultural building, storytelling, traditional games, and language work. It’s amazing the connections they make with one another.

And with my own daughter, do I move or send her to live with family so that she can go to a school that is predominantly Native? Or do I keep her in school out here on the coast where I have to work harder to keep her connected to the community? These are decisions all parents have to make. That why programs like the summer camp we hold are important, because we are building a community for kids throughout the region. We bring together kids from throughout our entire service area so they can get to know one another. How do we create a sense of community and social responsibility? Those are the kind of things that keep your work worthwhile.

Kids are amazing. If adults were as open as kids, we’d be in a much better place.

RICHARDSON: What about leadership development in Native communities?

ALLEN: One of the interesting things for us as Native people is that though tribal communities are as old as they come, we’ve been here forever, tribal governments have been developed in the last 30 to 35 years. One of the things I am interested in setting up is opportunities for people in tribal communities to be bridge people between tribal governments and nonprofits. Although there are specific laws that require consultations with government entities, there is necessarily that same kind of connection between tribal governments and nonprofits who are doing work around environmental issues and other issues. I feel like this connection may be the more important one, the one that brings activists on different levels together to find a common value, a common goal that benefits a community.

One of the areas I’d like to see is leadership opportunities. None of us have a degree in bridging. A lot of times—I know for myself—you sort of fall into it. There’s not always the same opportunities for leadership training for people from more challenged and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. But that’s where we need the leadership to come from for those communities, so I would like to see us broaden our definition of leadership and to provide opportunities for these people to hone their natural leadership skills.

One of the most recent conferences that I have had the chance to attend that always keeps me inspired and motivated is the Bioneers Conference held annually in Marin, California. Its keynote speakers are often talking about issues of environmental responsibility and social justice, and they are often innovative thinkers who believe in people making positive changes for our shared world. I’ve noticed that many of their keynote speakers are people of color, but not a lot of their participants are people of color. And yet I know how inspired I get when I am introduced to these speakers and thinkers, so how do we bridge those ideas to make them useful for our communities? Bioneers does have a program they called Beaming Bioneers that does just that, it brings these keynote speakers to communities across the nation through telecommunications, and we are hoping to bring that conference to our community in a few years.


There is also a lot of potential with various technologies that already exist, but have yet to be applied to community projects. But once they are, man, to see community people taking these tools to make a difference in the work they are passionate about is inspiring.

For example, there is this digital recorder called the Marantz that has had a huge impact on work of people in our community who are working with Indigenous languages. These recorders allow people to take an old tape recording of people speaking the language and transfer it into a digital format, and then kids download these onto their iPods. To think that I can put a recording of, say, my great-gram singing onto my daughter’s iPod, to make that kind of connection between generations, is powerful. There are so many potential connections and partnerships to be made that can have a meaningful impact in our communities. It’s an exciting time to be involved, and I am always inspired by people in my community who are making these connections in their field of interest, working towards a common goal of strengthening our community.

Original CAN/API publication: June 2008