By Kevin Begos
Communicating Within the Natural World
Linda Burhansstipanov navigates the cultural and public health challenges of cancer in the Native American community
By Kevin Begos
The herd of deer drift through the pine trees and down the mountain, moving silently in the snow to within a few feet of Linda Burhansstipanov’s back porch in Pine, Colo., a little west of Denver. Some days, the scene repeats itself with elk instead of deer, and there are even bears, moose and mountain lions nearby in the wilderness. There’s a smile on Burhansstipanov’s face as she watches the deer approach. Inside her home are more reminders of the close link between Native American cultures and the natural world. A 10-foot-long “tooth” from a baleen whale hangs over a staircase—it’s almost like a feather, made of hundreds of long, soft strands that filter water to trap plankton. On the other side of the room, a whole wall is reserved for wildlife-related art.
Cancer is a part of the natural world, too, but many native cultures struggle with the idea. That has made Burhansstipanov’s work difficult at times. When she founded the nonprofit Native American Cancer Research (NACR) organization in 1999, there was so much fear about cancer that even the group’s name was controversial. She recalls that some tribes believed just saying “cancer” could spread the disease. “The word was contagious,” says Burhansstipanov, 58. Some told her that the “people who work for you—they’ll get cancer.”
Native Americans also associate cancer with the white man’s world, and Burhansstipanov knows from personal experience how heavy the tension between the two cultures can be. Though she now lives in the Colorado Rockies with her husband, Rick, and two cats, her ancestors come from the Cherokee tribe of Oklahoma. But that wasn’t something her mother or father ever discussed when she was growing up; the subject was taboo. Burhansstipanov’s father insisted that his wife hide all traces of her Indian past. When his daughter started to openly claim that heritage and to work in the community, he disowned her, she says.
“The historical trauma in our community is incredibly high,” Burhansstipanov says. Native Americans come from a culture that went from being 100 percent of the population in the Americas 500 years ago down to 1 percent today. In many cases, the very treaties and reservations that were supposed to protect tribes have turned into something more complicated: a separate set of rules that in the best case can do good, but in the worst case do harm. There are chronic funding problems with the federally financed Indian Health Service, according to Burhansstipanov, and outsiders sometimes make the naive assumption that every tribe has a casino to generate money for social and medical programs. (Only about 25 percent do.)
Still, she has seen many encouraging signs of progress during the last 10 years. Part of the problem for many tribes has been that the literal translation of “cancer” is roughly “the disease that has no cure.” In an interview published in a pamphlet produced by Burhansstipanov’s organization, a woman from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe remembered that after her diagnosis of breast cancer, family members “acted like they were scared of me. Nobody hugged me and they were all ... sitting there looking at me. And that’s when I started to feel different.”