Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC) on the Fort Belknap reservation is located in north-central Montana, where towns are few and far between, and the distant reservation communities of Browning to the west and Poplar to the east seem light years away. If ANC allied health graduates want to pursue a nursing degree, they must leave their community and reside in one of the larger towns in Montana where there are nursing programs. Often this leads to an increased financial burden and removal from their community’s cultural and spiritual lifeway. This has become evident throughout the years, as students from ANC enter nursing programs that have no Indigenous grounding. Our students leave ANC with an empowerment of who they are and excel in the pre-science courses that are needed for entrance into nursing. Once accepted, however, many are not retained or do not finish or graduate. And yet there is a drastic shortage of nurses in Montana, especially on the state’s seven Indian reservations.
Moreover, a recent study of health outcomes by the Joseph Wood Johnson Foundation indicates that those counties in or near Indian reservations in Montana have the lowest health outcomes. This finding, along with the shortage of American Indian nurses and our students’ experiences at institutions away from home, galvanized ANC to look into developing its own nursing program to “Grow Our Own.” A survey of the Fort Belknap community and the region indicated a need for such a program. The survey also indicated that 89% of respondents said the program should have a cultural emphasis and 94% believed having such a program would impact the health of the community. Accordingly, the college held community meetings with tribal council members; the consensus was that ANC should have a Registered Nursing program.
Since then the college has received funding for a state-of-the-art simulation lab and, most recently, a five-year grant to help fund the program itself as well as train Certified Nursing Assistants for immediate employment. The college has just appropriated two buses so nursing students can be transported to distant clinical sites along the Hi-Line, returning each night to their home communities. The Board of Nursing for Montana approved ANC’s phase one document for the establishment of a new nursing program.
The college’s first cohort of nursing students received their certificates in January 2016, and are now eligible for employment. Most will work part-time, finish their studies, and enter into the nursing program this September. The outpouring of good will from the Fort Belknap community and all along the Hi- Line has helped ANC “Grow Our Own” and realize its mission to “help individuals improve their lives by offering them an opportunity to maintain the cultural integrity of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes as well as succeed in an American technological society.”