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New Member Spotlight

All About Healing

Emily Thomsen

As a Seventh-day Adventist Native American— with a history of substance abuse, a graduatelevel education and a passion for her people—Debra Claymore is in a unique position of influence. “I believe in planting seeds and allowing the Holy Spirit to nurture and grow those seeds,” she says. Involved in several different projects serving Native Americans around the country, she’s planting seeds wherever she goes.

Debra has worked in elementary education, substance abuse treatment/prevention training, Native American ministries and evangelism. Today, in addition to serving part-time as Native American Ministries Director for the Dakota Conference, she owns DClaymore & Associates, which assists Native American tribes around the country develop, evaluate and request funding for health services programs.

Debra is a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota (Sioux) tribe, a background that allowed her to earn the trust of other Native Americans and be better situated to help them. Though higher education among Native Americans is now more common, when Debra received her master’s in education administration, few Native Americans even had bachelor’s degrees.

She also has a testimony to share of deliverance from substance abuse. “Jesus overcame my drug and alcohol abuse,” she says. After attending rehab in the 1980s, Debra became interested in working with substance abuse treatment and prevention among Native Americans.

inside_asi_winter_09_page_11_image_0001Her first position in that field was as Employee Assistance Director for schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation (Oglala Sioux) in South Dakota. She developed an education assistance program that continues to this day. “I’m proud of that,” Debra says. “It’s rare for a program to continue after the original director leaves.”

Next she worked as a substance abuse prevention coordinator at a tribal community college. In the late 1980s, Debra helped develop the Northern Plains Native American Chemical Dependency Association. The Association received a three-year grant to begin a substance abuse treatment program, for which Debra served as executive director. Along with Debra, the treatment director and all the counselors were Native American. The program had a 75 percent success rate, compared to the national average of only 35 percent.

In each of these positions Debra collected the knowledge and experience necessary to write proposals, develop and evaluate programs, and train program staff. So when she started her own company, Debra began by helping tribes that had already received grants to build infrastructure and conduct training.

One project provided the staff of a substance abuse treatment facility with two credit hours from a local college for taking a class Debra taught on working with HIV and hepatitis C clients, specifically Native Americans. Another program allowed children to enroll in a local school while their mothers attended a substance abuse treatment facility. “It’s really difficult for Native American women to leave their families for a month of substance abuse treatment,” Debra says.

The center offered both physical and mental health services, including family counseling. In another project, a tribe set aside a cluster of houses and apartments as a sober community. That allowed tribe members who had received substance abuse treatment to live in a supportive community.

Three of Debra’s current projects are in Anchorage, Alaska. One treats children with mental health issues. Another prepares Native Alaskan homeless people— who often have both mental health and substance abuse problems—to move into their own apartments. The third is restructuring an Alaskan Native/American Indian corporation so that its departments better share critical information in providing health services.

Another current project is a diabetes program at the Salish Kootenai College, a school in Montana co-sponsored by the Salish and Kootenai tribes. Additionally, the substance abuse prevention program on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Fort Yates, North Dakota, received a grant to expand their program to provide additional staff, new treatment methods and training to reach a greater number of people. Indian Health Services (IHS) publishes a booklet every five years detailing the health statistics of tribal groups. According to IHS, Native Americans have the highest rate in North America of heart disease, diabetes, and substance abuse, which in turn results in higher rates of cirrhosis, shooting and other types of accidents, as well as murder and suicide.

Native American teenagers are particularly vulnerable to suicide. “Native Americans experience a lot of physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” Debra says. She attributes this to rampant alcohol abuse and the  fact that Native Americans’ natural way of living has been historically interrupted. Consequently, many Native Americans today feel hopeless and angry.

Debra explains the history of today’s issues, dating back to when Europeans came to North America. They took the land from native tribes and eventually moved them to reservations. Later the government assigned certain churches and education departments to each reservation, to “take the Indian out of our children.”

At age five, Native American children were sent to boarding schools, where their hair was cut (a sign of mourning in some tribes), they wore European clothes, received European names, and were beaten if they spoke their native languages.

Because the Europeans did these things in Christ’s name, today many Native Americans reject Christianity. Instead they are returning to their traditional ways, furthering the rejection of Christianity. “Only in the last two years have the people in the Dakota conference begun to trust us,” Debra says.

inside_asi_winter_09_page_12_image_0001As part of her work in the Dakota Conference, she has provided Adventist church members with cultural sensitivity training, coordinated Christian basketball camps, conducted a Coats for Kids project and organized a Native Campmeeting which includes all Native American Christians. She’s also helped develop American Indian Living, a quarterly magazine addressing issues specific to Native American people, such as health or abuse, as well as sharing the gospel.

Debra also helped organize a short evangelistic series specifically tailored to Native Americans. A church planter hired by the Dakota Conference led the series. One night he shared his conversion story. Another night a man who became an Adventist while attending the Holbrook Indian School told his testimony. Debra also shared her testimony one night.

Not surprisingly, some of the testimonies included stories about abuse. After one meeting, a teenage girl confided in Debra about her own sexual abuse. She and her mother had reported it, but after two years the abuser remained unpunished and the girl had dropped out of school.

“When I told her Jesus overcame the pain for me, we prayed together,” Debra says. “I talked to her about the importance of school, and that her anger came from the abuse and not seeing justice served.” The last two nights of the meeting the pastor talked about simply coming to Christ. The girl, along with several others, requested baptism. She then went on to finish high school and now plans to attend college. She too wants to help Native Americans.

After the evangelistic series, the resulting church plant launched as a small company. An Adventist church had once existed on that reservation, but had closed because of family infighting—a common occurrence, Debra says. Another Christian group running a mission on the reservation had leased the original church building as housing for incoming groups, so the little Adventist company had no place to meet.

For three years Debra and the conference treasurer negotiated to use the church in the afternoons. Finally last fall, about 50 members, both Native Americans and non-Native Americans, met in their old church building for the first time and were officially recognized as a company. Each week their pastor drives 60 miles to lead the church in worship.

With 550 federally recognized tribes, and even more that are state-recognized, each with a unique culture and language, the Native American mission field is vast. There are also serious challenges. One challenge is that while some Native Americans believe in the same God we do, many don’t necessarily believe in Jesus.

But when meeting with Native Americans, Debra will begin by praying to Jesus anyway. “I feel passionate about working with Native Americans because so few of them believe in the love of Christ or belong to any Biblebased church,” she says. “Being with my people and sharing Christ’s hope with them is very rewarding.”

Debra aims to reach Native Americans just as Jesus reached the people of His day—through meeting their needs. “I try to model Jesus’ method of ministry,” she says. “It was all about healing.”