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First lady visits Saginaw Chippewa tribe, praises mental health program

Brett Dahlberg
First Lady Jill Biden and surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murphy arrive at the Saginaw Chippewa tribe’s Ziibiwing cultural center outside Mount Pleasant Sunday and are greeted with traditional music and dancing.

First Lady Jill Biden visited the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation’s cultural center in Mid-Michigan Sunday to hear about a mental health program that tribal educators started with federal funding.

Biden, accompanied by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, talked to tribal leaders, teachers and students about Project Aware, which aims to help teachers address students’ mental health needs. Biden said the program could be a model for schools across the country.

“Our country needs healing, and what gives me hope is programs like Project Aware that goes into the schools and into the communities and helps heal,” the first lady said.

Biden met with tribal representatives in the Ziibiwing cultural center just outside Mount Pleasant. She was greeted with traditional dancing and singing.

Inside, Melissa Isaac, the tribe’s education director, who helped start the $9 million grant-funded program in 2019, told the first lady about a formative experience in her first year of teaching. Isaac said a student’s father had died, and she was lost as she tried to respond.

“He asked me to bring his dad back,” Isaac said. “It was so difficult.”

She said she wondered, ‘Is it okay to cry with him? Or am I supposed to be professional and do it somewhere else?’”

Isaac had no professional training on how to work with a grieving student, she said.

That set her on a path to developing Project Aware, said Isaac.

It’s a pressing concern, she said, because rates of addiction, suicide and poverty are all often higher in tribal communities than in surrounding populations. Without specific methods to counter the mental trauma of those issues, they will continue, Isaac said.

Kehli Henry, a leader with the project, said it starts with teacher training.

“We’re trying to get them to make this huge culture shift,” Henry said.

Instead of punishing misbehavior, she said, Project Aware encourages teachers to find the reasons behind the behavior and help students deal with their difficulties.

Biden said the approach was working. “Our nation is starting to heal. I know it’s slow. It’s going to take a long time, but I do feel like we’re making progress.”

Protestors who gathered down the road from Biden’s meeting with tribal leaders disagreed.

A group of about a dozen was waiting for the first lady’s motorcade to pass as she left the cultural center, holding signs reading — for example — “we don’t want your smallpox blankets,” “stop bribing my people” and “don’t gamble with our future generation.”

Merissa Turcotte, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, helped organize the demonstration. She said it was mainly about opposing the Biden administration’s encouragement of vaccination and mask-wearing to protect against COVID-19, but she also did not believe the first lady — or anyone in the federal government — actually cared about the mental health of tribal students.

“Distrust is in my blood, and it’s through all my ancestors,” Turcotte said. “I know in my heart, I cannot trust them, and I will not trust them.”