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Sister Katherine Baltazar ’08 Addresses Suicide, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders on Native American Reservation

August 29, 2013

“I always find it a great compliment when people ask me if I’m native,” said Sister Katherine Baltazar, a psychiatric nurse currently working on a Native American reservation with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Baltazar graduated from Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions in 2008 from the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program. After graduation, she began working as a volunteer first at the Sioux Rosebud Indian Reservation, and then moved to the work at the Livengrin Foundation in Bensalem, Pennsylvania for two and a half years. She applied to return to the reservation afterward. “I’ve always wanted to work with Native Americans and now I have that opportunity,” she said.

The memories Baltazar made during her first experience at the Rosebud Reservation made her realize how incredible of an opportunity she had being a nurse on the reservation. “This ability to get really intimate with people because you can touch in a way that if you were a sociologist or an anthropologist you wouldn’t have kind of intimacy,” she said.

During her time working with the Lakota people on Rosebud, the reservation was going through a period when the teen suicide rate was unusually high. After just completing her PMH-NP degree at Drexel University she knew that “behavior is not the problem, it’s the symptom.” So she set out to understand what some of the deeper problems were. After talking with several of the native people, she began to realize that they were still suffering from historical trauma reverberating down through the generations. Baltazar explained that one instance when the Lakota were betrayed was when the U.S. Government promised them land and retracted the offer when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. In her research, she also learned that, in 2009, the U.S. military had the same suicide rate as the native people she lived with. This inspired her to study the relationship between feelings of betrayal and suicide rates.

In 2009 Baltazar presented to a national audience at the American Psychiatric Nurses Conference, wanting to address the subject of suicide in both the Army and the Native American populations, which both had rates of 20.2 suicides per 100,000 people. She was unable to carry out this specific research for ethical reasons, but still wanted to learn more.

“It made me more aware of the historical background, that things happen in context and you can’t just take them in the limited way that you see them now,” Baltazar said.

Under William Lorman, PhD, of Drexel University, she began to work at the Livengrin Foundation. Here she acquired the background knowledge necessary to understand addiction, and to give her the experience needed to return to the reservation.

In her present position in the Behavioral Health Department on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, she administers patient evaluations, medical checks and therapy, and she is also the supervisor of the social work department.

Baltazar is currently embarking on an awareness program for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which affects a developing fetus if their mother has a substance abuse or alcohol problem while pregnant. “It is one of the few medical conditions that is 100% preventable,” she said.

 Baltazar discovered that there used to be a program to develop awareness about FASD on the reservation, but it was stopped when grant funding ran dry. She is currently working to create a coalition of local community voices that will support her efforts on the issue of FASD. She believes that a growth in interest will come from the community itself. “There’s a kinship system with native people. Everybody knows everyone on the reservation,” she said.

Baltazar is working with the University of South Dakota’s Center for Disabilities to start a campaign to bring greater awareness to the issue by working to educate community members about the consequences of FASD, particularly to overcome the shame around it among the people on the reservation.

“I want to see myself as a catalyst. I’m not attached to success,” she said. “These are longstanding problems that have been on the reservation for years.”

Baltazar is going to be celebrating her one year anniversary on the reservation soon and plans to be there for another two years.

Sister Katherine Baltazar also attends Lakota classes two days a week after work, sits on the Suicide Prevention Team for the local schools, and is a member of the Advisory Board for the Horsemanship Grant (a three year Department of Justice grant to teach horseback riding to typical and at-risk youth).