Wellness director refuses to give up

Ryan Winn

Ponīnītah. Translated into English, this Menominee word means “Don’t give up.” The College of Menominee Nation’s Indigenous wellness director, Beth Waukechon, makes this sentiment a mantra.

Upon entering her role at the college in summer 2022, Waukechon saw her work as “carrying out the college’s mission to build more access and education for overall wellness opportunities.” She noted that her goal is “normalizing mental health awareness and support,” adding that “Coming out of COVID, we cannot live with the illusion that mental health struggles do not exist.”

A graduate of Shawano High School, the Menominee tribal member received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UW-Oshkosh and her master’s degree in education leadership from Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. Waukechon taught in the Menominee Indian School District and Menominee Tribal School for seventeen years before moving to CMN. She was part of a team who “worked with the whole child on trauma responsive care.”

“We met the children where they were at, in every aspect, looking at their educational services as a reflection of their health,” Waukechon explained. “We were advocates for the interaction between the student, their family, the teachers, support staff, and services.”

Waukechon took the position at CMN to enable her own growth while supporting the college community.

“I enjoy helping others, and so many students are under stress because of so many variables,” she said. “When you alleviate stress, you see a major shift in a person’s focus. Offering resources through higher education can be a game changer for communities.”

Yet, the path to wellness is not always easy.

“Healing is not linear,” Waukechon said, “but when someone is honest with their own story, then healing can begin to occur. Some people try to run and hide from it, but hurt comes from things not being in balance. Mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual trauma can lead to all kinds of illnesses that affect our biology. All humans want to belong, to be seen, to be heard, to be honored in a way that’s respectful. When we feel fully supported, we can dive in and own our health.”

Much of what Waukechon offers to the CMN campus builds community through gift-giving. The physical gifts she shares are locally-made, natural soaps, as well as bags of candies that feed one’s sweet tooth.

Alternatively, she said the intangible gifts come from “holding a forum to reflect on what positive mental health looks like, putting those thoughts into a room, and becoming comfortable in that healing environment. Collaboration with other departments is also very important to help deliver opportunities for growth, wellness, and overall hope for the future.”

As a liaison for support at CMN, Waukechon has created spaces on the college’s Keshena and Green Bay campuses for sharing Indigenous foods, brewing natural teas, creating therapeutic art, and harvesting traditional medicines such as sage and cedar. Her additional initiatives include hosting cultural events such as moccasin games and a “Rock Your Mocs” campaign.

“It takes all of us to build a community around self-care,” Waukechon said. “CMN is working diligently to ensure that wellness is a top priority and we’re developing a system of care to respond to our current health needs.”

Waukechon also noted that “In the last 10 years, brain science has recognized the phenomenal impact healing can have on how we function. Workshops, self-reflection, seeking support, and creating wellness plans can really help us each understand what is going on in our being. When we’re aware of what tools can help us, we can use them to be in the moment and attuned to what’s going on around us.”

Waukechon conveyed that “Our perspective as Indigenous people has a deeper connection to our relatives who have passed on. We’re relying on those who came before us to guide us. We learn from the teachings of the grandmothers and grandfathers. The natural world is our first classroom.”

College offers students a chance to earn a higher education, but gaining that knowledge while focusing on wellness creates a well-rounded individual.

“We each have to find our purpose in life,” Waukechon said. “Everyone has a gift to offer, and figuring out what that is will help us each thrive.”

Of course, thriving comes through persistence, no matter the obstacle, or, to put it another way, ponīnītah.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit www.menominee.edu for more information about the school.