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Community is Good Medicine

A reluctant journey towards embracing my Chemehuevi and Chicana identities brought health and healing

by Elaine Mollindo

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Listen to Elaine Mollindo's story:

When I think about Fort Yuma, the Indian Health Services institution on the Quechan Tribes Reservation near my hometown of Yuma, Arizona, I think of a big, gloomy building with neoclassical accents and neatly trimmed shrubs, which was totally contrasted by the inside. It was filled with mismatched furniture from the '70s, vinyl chairs of turquoise and burnt orange and mustard and olive. And I think it only had one TV and it was way up high and staticky, and it never had anything that I wanted to watch on it. It smelled like a thrift store mixed with rubbing alcohol.

But the people, they were the most memorable. Brown, leathery and old, many were obese and some had amputations and they all looked so sad. This was my first understanding of what it meant to be Native American. And I did not want to be that sad or sick, ever. I was Mexican and Native American, both Brown people, but these Brown people, they were broken. So I decided I would be Native only when I needed to go to the doctor.

I am not an enrolled member of my tribe, but I identify and celebrate myself as a Chemehuevi person. This has not always been the case, as my earliest experiences at Fort Yuma made me afraid of the Native part of me.

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Because my father is an enrolled Chemehuevi, I was able to receive medical services at Fort Yuma, or what we called the Indian Hospital. My mother tells me I received all my pediatric care there since birth, but it wasn't until I was about five years old that I started to collect memories about the place. There, I was introduced to blood quantum. In that place, I began to recognize that I was two different types of people and that there was race and class in the world.

Generally speaking, visiting the Indian Hospital was never fun. It was a clinic environment, so you waited hours to see a doctor. And because it was federally funded, many of the medical professionals were military and they cycled out regularly. But there was one pharmacist who I looked forward to seeing. He was a thin White man with big light-colored eyes. And he reminded my family of Willie Wonka. I think I liked him so much because seeing him meant we were at the end of the visit. And if I was getting medicine, it would most likely be flavored syrups. Even though I resented the place, I continued to go to Fort Yuma throughout my childhood and into my teen years. In fact, I even found out I was going to be a teen mother at the Indian Hospital. But when it came time to go to college, I just wanted to be rid of it.

Because my father is an enrolled Chemehuevi, I was able to receive medical services at Fort Yuma, or what we called the Indian Hospital. My mother tells me I received all my pediatric care there since birth, but it wasn't until I was about five years old that I started to collect memories about the place. There, I was introduced to blood quantum. In that place, I began to recognize that I was two different types of people and that there was race and class in the world.

Honestly, I didn't want to be Native at all. I didn't want to be Chicana. I just wanted to get out of Yuma and reinvent myself as a modern American woman. I got a scholarship to attend Arizona State University, and I left my home, my family, and Fort Yuma behind. I loved my new life in the big city and I visited home less and less. College was fun, but it was soon over. And the next chapter was not as fun.

I chose a career in social services, which left me under the poverty line early in life. I struggled with stable housing and managing my budget. I worked a high stress job, ate bad food that I could afford, and developed obesity. I also aged out of my father's private insurance and found myself a young person with no access to healthcare. I was scared and confused. The path I had taken out of Yuma was supposed to lead me to an ideal American life. Instead, I felt I'd walked a big circle and ended up just another struggling Brown person. I'd become everything I disliked about my people and I feared I was becoming one of those patients in the Fort Yuma waiting room.

The path I had taken out of Yuma was supposed to lead me to an ideal American life. Instead, I felt I'd walked a big circle and ended up just another struggling Brown person. I'd become everything I disliked about my people and I feared I was becoming one of those patients in the Fort Yuma waiting room.

Back home in Yuma, my parents decided it was time for me to get to the Indian Hospital. They traveled to my reservation to get my descendancy letter. It documents I am my father's daughter, and though I can't enroll in the tribe, I am entitled to medical benefits through Indian Health Services anywhere in the country. On their suggestion, I begrudgingly agreed to begin accessing health services at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. I call it PIMC.

I didn't want to go because it meant I was again too poor to get the things White people get like a primary care doctor in a fancy private practice. I didn't want to go and see the sick people I was afraid of, but I didn't have a choice.

So I went and I was surprised that it was really different. At PIMC the patients were so diverse. There were people of all ages, people who presented as White. There were Afro-Indigenous people and a large portion of them appeared pretty healthy. During my early visits, I returned repeatedly to the emergency room for migraines. I'd had them since I was a teen and had always just suffered through them. PIMC noticed their frequency and assigned me an onsite neurologist. I was able to start preventative treatments and now no longer experience debilitating migraines. I kept going for my care through the years and PIMC became one of the things I could count on even when things were hard. It was a source of security and it helped me stay hopeful.

I knew that access to medical care gave me an edge that many didn't have. And I used that edge to make changes over the next 15 years. I built a care team of BIPOC women at PIMC, who I respect greatly and trusted to support me in my wellness. This team supported me as I went back to school, made a career change, and prioritized my health. Things were going great. And then COVID happened.

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It's hard to think that the part of me I had disliked for so long was the part that kept this body alive and well all these years, not only by giving me access to medical care, but by weaving resiliency into my DNA. It took me years to understand that I needed to decolonize myself and I am resisting when I fiercely take care of this Brown body.

The isolation was difficult, but I was ready. During the stay-at-home orders I reflected a lot and learned about systemic racism. I realized in that time how much being Native meant to me. I was lonely, of course. And there were times where it felt like we had little control over anything. PIMC had limited their in-person visits. And I was feeling uneasy about not having access to my care team if I got sick. So I joined PIMC's Facebook page to stay up-to-date. And that led me to other Native health pages and other Indigenous groups. I noticed on social media other Indigenous people, making art, especially beautiful bead work, and speaking of it as good medicine. I wanted to practice good medicine too, so I learned to bead from watching Instagram that year and still bead today. It's an important part of my wellness now.

It's hard to think that the part of me I had disliked for so long was the part that kept this body alive and well all these years, not only by giving me access to medical care, but by weaving resiliency into my DNA. It took me years to understand that I needed to decolonize myself and I am resisting when I fiercely take care of this Brown body. I now know that I can't claim benefit from my Native identity without radically giving back too. I have intersectional privileges now, and I have committed to using these privileges to help decolonize this land and lift Indigenous voices.

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I continue to prioritize my wellness, and I've lost 100 pounds. I recently had labs drawn at PIMC to screen for risk of diabetes, heart disease and the usual killers of underserved people. My primary care physician, who's also a Native woman, reported my values were all in healthy ranges. She laughed and she shared that she almost sent them back because it was not normal for her to see labs like these in a patient my age. She meant it to be lighthearted, but the impact was big. You see, White supremacy wants me sick and sad like the people I remember from Fort Yuma during my childhood. It needs to kill us covertly these days. So for me, it meant victory against the system. It meant I'll be sticking around to fight for my people and all People of Color for more years to come.

Elaine Mollindo

Elaine Mollindo, she/her, is a cisgender female with an Indigenous mixed identity of Chemehuevi and Chicanx. Elaine is passionate about equity, wellness and early childhood education. She has served in the arena of children and families for over 20 years as a family support provider, teacher, director, coach and most recently, professional learning facilitator. Elaine currently designs and facilitates professional learning experiences for various early childhood organizations on the land now known as Arizona. She is the proud mother of a 28-year-old, intelligent, empowered, equity advocate.
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