Flatwater Free Conversation: Belinda Hinojos and Joe Starita on building a skate park on Native land.

In October, the Flatwater Free Press wrote about the incredible thing that happened after the Omaha Tribe and a group of Nebraskans built a skate park in Walthill, located inside Nebraska’s poorest county. This month’s Flatwater Free Conversation goes deeper into that stunning story, as host Mike’l Severe interviews two Nebraskans who have worked to help the children of the Omaha Reservation following a spate of suicides. Here is a condensed version of his chat with author and journalist Joe Starita, and psychologist Belinda Hinojos. Or watch the video, posted above.

Mike’l Severe: This is a broad based question, I know. But how difficult is it for people of color, especially Native Americans, to get access to mental healthcare right now in 2022? 

Belinda Hinojos: Very difficult. It’s a remote community. There’s not a whole lot of providers that are living out there or wanting to work out there.

Being able to find a provider can be pretty challenging. But then when we look at other barriers like cost, like transportation, stigma, trust, you know. It’s small community, so is everyone gonna know my business? Is everyone gonna know that I’m going to the clinic or to the mental health office to see someone?

And so I think there’s a lot of barriers of why people maybe don’t reach out or, or can’t afford to or maybe just can’t get there. The stigma part.

Mike’l: Even growing up African American…you know, “That guy’s crazy. He’s going to a therapist.” How hard is it for you to tell them that this is necessary, that this is how you can get help, with that stigma of your family or whoever thinking that you’re crazy?

Belinda: Mm-hmm. , you know, I think that relationship is key. Like once you have that relationship and that trust with the community, I think then they will come to you. Right?

And so I know we do tons of outreach and that’s never going to stop. So even though we’re established in the community, I think we have a pretty good relationship and people know of us. Like we’re still always out there at community events, at powwows, if there’s a death in the community, Morningstar is there to open our doors and offer support.

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We send things to the family. Things that are, I think, very non-traditional and how we’re trained in mental health. Mental health usually keeps really strict boundaries with our clients. That’s just not gonna work in the native community, or any community of color.

They have to trust you and they have to know you. So I think once we get there then that opens doors. But we also have to make sure that we keep that. We can’t just say, okay, we’re here, we’re established, they’re gonna come. It’s something you continuously have to work.

Mike’l: So how’d you first get involved with Walthill? What was the first time you, you went there? Was it for researching a book?

Joe Starita: The first time I did a biography of Dr. Susan LaFlesche, who is probably the most notable, famous person who has emerged from the Omaha Reservation. She was from Walthill.

But the short answer is I have my own scholarship. I have my college scholarship for Nebraska, native American high school graduates. It’s specifically for Nebraska, native American high school graduates called the Chief Standing Bear Journey for Justice Scholarship. I put 57 and counting native students into college and through college, and I go up to Walthill every March.

I’ve been doing that for about eight years, and I meet with the guidance counselors there at Walthill and also in Macy. They get the senior class together and I come in and I just give them this fire and brimstone: You’ve gotta have a game plan. You have got to have something going for you after high school. You cannot end up another white cross in the ditch. We have enough of them. Tell me what you wanna do and I will help you become a nurse or a diesel mechanic or a teacher, or whatever it is. So that relationship was established probably eight years ago with the guidance counselors.

So I just do that circuit every March and I appear in person and often with native people to really help drive home the point. You can’t be what you can’t see. If I have a young woman with me who is getting her PhD and she’s Ojibwe, that gives the presentation a lot more cred.

So the relationship with Walthill started eight years ago and it was hitch to the idea of, let me help you get through college. So you have a career. That can generate an income, that can support a family, that can allow you to become a community member. And, you know, it just kind of unfolded from there.

Now I love the place and love the people there.

Mike’l: It’s gotta be difficult to see what happens to some of those kids. I mean, obviously the suicide rate is high. Substance abuse, alcoholism, that’s gotta be difficult to just go in there, give your message.

Joe: You’re not gonna get everybody. But it’s like the little boy and his father walking along the seashore and seeing thousands and thousands of starfish. And the little boy picks one up and throws it in the ocean and the father says, “Little Johnny, what’s the point? Really? There are thousands of these, that really won’t matter.”

And Johnny looks at him and says, “Well, it will to that one.”

Exactly the same. The same thing. No, you can’t get all of them. If I can get…the valedictorian of Walthill High four years ago and pay for her to go to nursing college at Clarkson Nursing College, the best nursing college in Nebraska and graduate, and her motivation is to become like Susan LaFlesche and go back to the Omaha reservation and spend the rest of her life as a nurse taking care of her people, it doesn’t matter if you get all of them. It matters that you get Rosa. 

Mike’l: It’s gotta be also difficult, like we’re talking about the stigma and also having a white man walk in and tell them these things. How do you think that works the mentality to say, this guy’s telling me he doesn’t know. How do you think that works for, for those kids to, to believe him?

Belinda: Joe’s done a good job of of building relationships in the community. And so even for kids that may be meeting him for the first time, they see him talking to people like Mike Grant, right? They see him talking to others in the community and they see that that relationship is strong, and so then they’re a little bit more open to hearing. They don’t hear it enough. They don’t see it enough. I think, like Joe said, if you can’t see it, how are you gonna be it?

And so I think by bringing back individuals who have come from those communities or who represent their culture or, are similar to their culture, then I think that that helps them open their ears a little bit more. One of the things that I think is a challenge is that a lot of the programs are usually funded on grants which is, you know, great. But grants usually only have a cycle of maybe four years, five years. And then, money dries up and they leave right until the next grant comes. And so I think the community is used to seeing people come in, you know, there for four or five years and then they leave and then another year or two later, here’s another group.

And so then sometimes it’s difficult to really trust, like, are you really here? Are you here to stay? Are you just gonna be here, the money runs out and then you’re gone? That’s the thing that we really try to work on with Morningstar, is that we are here to stay. We’re not leaving.

That’s not our goal. Joe’s proven that with just a number of years he’s been involved and that he continues to come up to Walthill and bring others. He brought a big group to Walthill of board members that had never, you know, been on a reservation, had never really gone to a tribal community.

Mike’l: So I know you’d seen the success in other places of skate parks, including Native American communities. What clicked in your head to say this needs to be there as well?

Joe: Oh, I can tell you very specifically. After my annual visit in March of 2020 to the senior class at Walthill, the guidance counselor pulled me aside and asked me to come into her office. She said, there’s something I need you to know. And it explains to some degree why these kids didn’t seem as engaged as they normally do. And she said, a couple of weeks ago, we had 17 suicide attempts in one night. Six of them successful. Ranging in ages from 15 to 24.

And just those two sentences, they were daggers that I couldn’t, pull out. They were so haunting. And I was just thinking if that had happened at Omaha Westside or Creighton. Or Lincoln Southwest. The gov would’ve mobilized the National Guard and he would’ve created a Red Cross mobile crisis unit that would’ve been in those hospitals the next day.

That many suicide attempts on the Omaha Reservation, six dead. Nobody even knows it happened. Maybe a lot of people on the reservation knew it happened, but nobody off the reservation knew it happened, and just the sheer unfairness piled on top. Centuries of trauma. Action is hope and inaction is hopelessness.

And I’m wound really tight as any number of people could say and attest to, but you know, it has an upside too. I was on the drive back thinking back to all the thousands of hours I’ve spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation doing research and building friendships there. And every single time, I don’t care what time of year, driving by the skate park at Pine Ridge, and if you had an aerial view, it looked like an ant colony. Just swarming with kids. I thought, you know, let’s try that at Walthill. Let’s see if we can build a skatepark at Walthill where they can just get out of their bedrooms, get out of their homes. 

Susan LaFlesche… she had a medical degree. She graduated as the valedictorian of her class. She was the first Native American doctor in the history of the United States, but her mantra was fresh air and sunshine as the best medicine. If the woman who lived two blocks up the hill from where the skate park was gonna be built believed fresh air and sunshine was a medicine, well, let’s give them some good medicine.

And, uh, so that was the idea welding the need that came from the counselor’s story of the suicide attempts with the vision of Pine Ridge. That skate park was a happy place. Every time I stopped, everybody was smiling. Patting people on the back, bragging, trash talking, but they were out having a good time.

They weren’t in their bedrooms, holed up in their sweatpants watching violent video games. And so that was the attraction. 

Mike’l: Is it that simple? When you talk about getting outside, obviously your endorphins go up and you just feel better, especially when it’s a nice day. Is it that simple to help someone out who may be struggling inside their own head to get out and skateboard?

Belinda: I think what we’re seeing is the connection that’s being built. Kids who maybe knew each other from school but didn’t really talk to each other. Um, kids who maybe had never seen someone skateboard, go down there because there’s a kid that’s really good at it and they wanna see the tricks that he’s doing.

It’s pulling them out because it’s new and it’s something that they see their friends doing or the other kids at school doing. And so then they’re coming together and they’re forming their own community within the community. It’s that connection that keeps people alive. When you ask people who’ve had suicidal thoughts what’s kept them from acting on that, it’s my mom, it’s my dad, it’s my sister. So I think it’s building community. Also, just the excitement as it was coming along all summer. I could see them because we’re right across the street from it. I could see them like, you know, kind of just standing around and as things were starting to come together, even though there was yellow tape that said, don’t go on there, they were still just kind of really in awe of what was being created.

I think there’s like an energy that brings hope. And I think that’s another protective factor against suicide and depression is having that hope, having that connection, that sense of belonging. All of those things have contributed to why this is making such a difference. 

Joe: John Sherman Jr. is a 15 year old sophomore at Walthill High, universally known as Junior and universally regarded as the best…The Tony Hawk of Walthill, the best skater. He was quoted in a recent article saying that before the skate park came into being, he would slip into school, walk down the hallway, head down, never make eye contact, never talk to anybody. Post skate park, he walks into the building, the high school building every day with his head up, looking people in the eyes, smiling because he knows he’s got something to look forward to that he didn’t have just a month ago.

It’s just completely flipped his attitude in the hallways between classes and in class 180 degrees. What a wonderful thing. 

Mike’l:  I think we didn’t know how important community was, whether it be going to a ballgame or going to a movie with a group of people or church until the pandemic hit. And you had a great point about it’s a community within a community. It just gives you that joy in the morning to wake up, right? Because you’re gonna get to hang with your community. I didn’t think about it before, never thought about it before the pandemic. So how do you build this? How do you raise the money? 

Joe: You know, when you look back on it, it was shockingly easy. There were 10 things that had to fall into place, and if any one of those 10 things backfired, it wouldn’t have gotten built. All, ten of them just toppled, like dominoes in a line. If the funding wasn’t there, if the community wasn’t behind it, if there wasn’t another colleague to partner with on the reservation, if the kids didn’t want it, if there were supply chain issues… I mean, any one of those could have torpedoed this. But they all just fell into place. And the easiest of all of the things was the fundraising.

You present the need, and you send it out to a foundation like the Lozier Foundation in Omaha. I’m not gonna tell you what they gave, but I can just say that we sent them a one pager and it included the paragraph about the suicide night in February of 2020, and within a week we got an email back from them saying, we are going to give you this six figure donation and we’re happy to do it. Just take the money and we’re done. We don’t need any more paperwork. It was a stunning the amount of money they gave. But there were people who gave $50,000. There were people who gave — a former student of mine gave $40,000. A famous novelist, Don Winslow, and his wife, who’s from Oakland, they gave $40,000.

In a matter of a few months, we had raised twice as much as we needed. Wow. The skate park, uh, the contract originally was for $200,000, and in a couple of months we had raised over $400 (thousand). So that was the key, obviously, getting the funding. But the company that we chose to design it in Joplin, Missouri, they were amazing.

They sent their CEO driving from Joplin, Missouri to Walthill, Nebraska, and he arrived at the library about five o’clock on an afternoon. Michael Grant had gathered up all of the skateboarders in town and his friends and community members, and the CEO of American Ramp Company from Joplin, Missouri came into the middle of the Omaha Reservation and he asked the kids what they wanted.

He had three different designs and he gave them yellow and green stickers to put on the designs that they liked best, on the features. Now think about that. This is not the dynamic that has existed between outside white people and native communities. They are very accustomed to white strangers coming to their reservation, telling them what they’re going to get, not asking them what they want. Once that equation got flipped., the buy-in and the power and the strength and the community getting behind this project was like a tidal wave. So we really are grateful to our partners in Joplin, Missouri for, for doing that, for getting in the car and driving eight hours to get to a reservation in the middle of a place they’ve never been before.

Mike’l: What’s next? This is there for a few months and you’re seeing differences already, but what else needs to be done? 

Belinda: Yeah, I, I think this skate park has really brought this sense of hope and belonging. We don’t wanna lose that momentum, right? So what are some other things that we can build in the community? Can there be skateboard, I don’t know, competitions? Lessons?

Can there be other events that we plan, but we incorporate the skate park? It goes back to how do we include the community? How do we make sure that elders and parents and others are also involved in supporting kids with skateboarding? I think there’s a lot of opportunity here and I think even just from, just everything that we’ve seen Junior do with the skate park and just the mentorship and leadership that he’s provided. Morningstar wanted to recognize him. So we invited him over to our building and we recognized him on Facebook.

We gave him a star quilt, and we gave him a gift card. And he was very humbled by it. I mean, he’s like the sweetest kid. But then the response through Facebook was … he’s such a leader. He’s been through a lot. I’m glad that you’re doing this for him.

And so just kind of that. That recognition. Students don’t always get it. We’re recognizing him for his leadership and for his mentorship. That may be something that was never recognized before the skate park because he didn’t have an opportunity to show those skills.

Thinking about that: creative ways that we can recognize kids, as they’re trying out their tricks and becoming better at skateboarding. The relationships they’re creating and skills that they’re exhibiting that maybe they never had a chance to before.

Mike’l: Girls Club too, right?

Joe: Boys and Girls Club is gonna be financed by the tribe. We’re gonna use some of the money left over from the skate park. We’re going to put in lighting so they can skate at night. We’re gonna build shelters or gazebos so the elders can come and sit in the summer and in the shade. Right. We are going to focus a lot of effort on the younger children on the reservation, the ones who were too young to skateboard. And we’re actually going to approach Eric Crouch’s company and we’re going to see if we can get some toddler playground equipment. We are gonna get it, it’s just a question of who we’re gonna get it from. Playground equipment for the youngsters, the 3, 4, 5 year olds who can’t skateboard now, but they need something to do as well.

We’re gonna give them something to do. But I was also gonna say that the flip side of Junior is as good as it makes these kids, the reaction to this story has just been a tsunami wave. It’s been overwhelming. People are contributing $5, $10, $500, a thousand dollars. We got one for $1,500.

All of these donations that have poured in after this story ran, their comments are how good it makes them feel — after months and months of waiting through the Ukraine and Putin and nuclear warfare and the divisiveness of American politics — to see a story in which this 15 year old skateboarder Junior won the lottery pick out of the hat when they pulled names out. 

It’s like Mark Twain said, kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see. That explains a lot of the motivation that we’re hearing and seeing from all the donations that are pouring in for skateboards, for helmets, for protective clothing, for money that we can use however we see fit, and that that sentiment is the connective tissue with a lot of these donations. The act of kindness just feels good. It feels good to help somebody. 

Mike’l: I know one of the biggest things for all kinds of communities, especially where there’s a lot of poverty, is just being able to be connected. High speed internet, very important, um, helps the schools obviously as well. Where’s the community in terms of that? Is that something that also needs being improved? 

Belinda: Yeah, I think I, I think any kind of help when it comes to broadband would be helpful. They did improve somewhat during Covid just because a lot of the schools went online. But I think there’s, there’s still a lot to be done, whether that’s do stuff related to academics, whether that’s look up social stuff related to skateboarding. But I think that is a big area that they’re still lacking there. 

Mike’l: That’s amazing that, that, you know, so many communities don’t have that simple thing that we expect now to be like water.

Belinda: Yeah. I think during Covid when a lot of mental health services moved online, a lot of people take for granted that they were able to do that. A lot of school districts were able to say, “Okay, well all of our students already have Chromebooks and they can just access school or classrooms from home.”

Well, it was a huge challenge up there, because not everyone has access. Not everyone has the quiet space even to be able to log on to have class. And then if you don’t even have the internet to be able to log on, how do you do that? 

Mike’l: People go to McDonald’s in some communities, so they could be online.

Belinda: Yeah, they go outside the library. Because the library is right there. It’s a lot easier. 

Mike’l: Do you think about this like being a part of your legacy? I know you’re doing this because you care. But I mean, in the end, when you look back, when you look back 50 years or whatever, this park will be thereg.

Joe: Nothing is in the rear view mirror right now. It’s straight ahead. Get those lights up, get those gazebos built. In the Boys and Girls Club, I want to make sure that there is a room in there that is a maker space. I want to carve a niche and I will step over bodies if I have to, to get that done, because I want to be able to exercise their brains as much as their bodies. They’re not gonna be able to earn a living and support a family by skateboarding. But a laser cutter, 3D printer, all of the machines, all that. It’s available at Creighton Prep. It’s available at Omaha Westside. It’s available at Lincoln Southeast, Southwest. Why not Walthill? That is just something that’s really important is to make sure that they’re not falling so far behind of the off-reservation schools that they’re hopelessly behind at age 18.

I want to do something to close that gap and that’s an easy thing to do. There’s no time to be wasted to look in the rear view mirror when there’s so much to be done on the road ahead. 

Mike’l: With people opening their pocketbooks and purses and wallets, is there something that, that you look at you’d like to see the community get that they need that can move this farther?

Belinda: The more you can invest in, whether that’s mental health services, whether that’s access to transportation to come into our center, whether that’s resources so that we can be more present in the schools.

I had just started with Morningstar when all those suicides occurred. It was a really difficult time. I just remember the schools and the communities were all hands on deck. They were going out at night looking for kids that they couldn’t get a hold of. Everyone was like, “What do we do? How can we provide resources to students?” The community came together and, and they’ve come a long way since then, but there’s still always a need for resources. For littles, like Joe talked about, up until adults. The more that we can pour into mental health resources to normalize talking to a counselor, not being ashamed to talk about thoughts of suicide or depression, anything like that, the stronger the community will be. 

The day of the skate park ribbon cutting, I was standing behind a group of kids that were sitting there listening to the speakers and one of the students leaned over to a kid who’s grade school, you know. A lot younger than him. And he tells him, “Whenever I’m feeling sad or when I’m feeling down, I get my skateboard. And that makes me feel so much better.” 

I mean, I don’t even think that kid realizes the impact that he made that day. Just normalizing sadness, normalizing that you do feel down sometimes. But also here’s a coping skill. Here’s a way that I feel better so you can feel better too. We need to connect more of those dots that mental health isn’t just going and sitting in a therapist’s office, even though we know that works. 

Joe: Fast forward from March of 2020 when the suicide issue had really plagued the reservation to April of 2021. The Omaha reservation community in the poorest county in Nebraska had the highest vaccination rate in Nebraska. The poorest county in Nebraska, with the highest suicide rate, had the highest vaccination rate — 87%. Beating out the other 92 counties in Nebraska.

Now, how is that possible? If you went two counties west of Thurston County, the vaccination rate was 23%. It went from 87% to 23% going from we to me. This to me is just a remarkable statistic and a window into a culture that still has the ability to take care of itself.

There’s so many things that we could have learned from native people, and if we’re smart, we will end up learning some valuable lessons from them.

Mike’l: And they have every reason through history to not trust the government, to not trust the vaccine. But because they knew that it was gonna help an elder or keep a baby from getting sick, they chose to do it.

Joe: That’s right. That’s exactly right. They did not want to walk in to that home and maybe have grandma die as a result. That’s just a profound lesson for all of us to integrate into our lives and become more we oriented and less me. 

Belinda: I just want to thank everyone who is holding all these kids in their hearts, this community in their heart donating money. I just encourage people to continue learning about it, about them. And to not let this just be a story that is highlighted and then passes. The community does need a lot of support. They’re feeling it right now. The more people stay invested, I think the, the more impact it’ll have over time. 

Mike’l: I certainly look forward to seeing what the future has for this and everything that you guys want to continue to do.

Joe: And there’s the Susan LeFlesche Hospital. I mean, that is being co-quarterbacked by two movers and shakers in Omaha. The head of a large group, largely Omaha based, who are doing a two and a half million dollar rehab of Dr. Susan LaFlesche’s hospital, which is about seven blocks from the skate park. The complete exterior is finished, they’re now doing the interior. The plan is to have this two story building: second floor a museum to Susan, the first floor, a 24-hour crisis center.

They want that to have some kind of health aspect, that first floor as a legacy. A tribute to honor the nation’s first Native American doctor, often referred to as the nation’s first female native. That’s wrong. Period. First Native American doctor, male or female, in the history of this country.

She built the first hospital on a reservation in the history of the United States. And she built it without a single tax dollar. They couldn’t vote and they weren’t even recognized as citizens.

I mean, talk about great role models. Now that that hospital is going to be kind of on the other end from the skate park and it’s going to have an enormous emotional identity. Because in the end this is always about identity. Who are we and what happens when a stronger exterior force comes in and ban your language, ban your religion, ban your songs, ban your dances, ban your ceremonies? If your culture is hijacked, then who are you?

And now that’s being restored. It’s being restored and it’s critically important that people on and off the reservation understand the issue of cultural identity and how valuable all of these different cultures can be to strengthen everybody. 

Mike’l: That’s an awesome story, Joe. We really appreciate it. Thanks for being part of a Flatwater conversation, we really appreciate it.