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Blanket exercise educates about Indigenous history and reconciliation

During Native American Heritage Month on November 17, 2022, University of Utah staff, faculty, students, and community members took part in the Blanket Exercise led by the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine Office of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the University of Utah American Indian Resource Center.  

The blanket exercise is an interactive experience that educates participants on the history of Indigenous Peoples. It is a way for participants to learn about the traumas that Indigenous people have experienced and how those historical traumas continue to have an impact on a variety of factors, such as physical and mental health.  

The event took place in Eccles Health Sciences Education Building, Alumni Hall with the floor covered in blankets in varied sizes and colors. Dr. Michael L. Good, CEO of University of Utah Health, Executive Dean of the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah, and Senior Vice President for Health Sciences welcomed participants, “This month, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, and we honor American Indian/ Alaska Natives to celebrate their rich and varied cultures, traditions, history, and contributions. Today’s workshop is an opportunity to learn about Native American history, increase our knowledge of the unique challenges faced by these communities, and gain a better understanding how historical trauma, such as colonization and genocide, has impacted Native peoples.” 

As participants moved through the exercise and the history of colonization, blankets were removed to demonstrate the forcible loss of land by Europeans. The blankets also represented the effects of treaties, imposed disease, erosion of communities, residential schools, violence, and death that has impacted Indigenous communities.  

“I am inspired by this work to better understand the health disparities and inequities among Native American’s and other historically underserved communities. Participating in today’s Blanket Exercise helps us practice cultural humility that translates into our clinical, academic, and research practices and lets us deliver culturally relevant health care that meet the needs of every patient we serve.” says, Dr. Good.  

The workshop’s goal was to create opportunities for students to engage with communities they will serve as physicians and to gain a greater understanding of the cultural background of patients to provide culturally sensitive care.    

“As a medical student, the OHEDI blanket exercise was a stark educational experience that taught me about atrocities the US government has routinely conducted on indigenous peoples, including stealing land, stripping rights, and reneging contracts. The exercise demonstrated the historical trauma indigenous people bear when interacting with more privileged US citizens. Understanding these traumas gave me a better perspective to improve my approach and support of indigenous peoples in the healthcare system. Furthermore, the exercise empowered me to actively combat systemic failures towards indigenous people and to develop systems to support people who have endured countless broken promises.” says Brian Zenger, an MD student in the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine.  

“The exercise is valuable for Native and non-Native people, the focus is not on guilt or blame but on healing and the goal of everybody leaves with a new understanding of Indigenous Peoples and our history,” says Donna Eldridge, Associate Director of the School of Medicine Office of Health Equity Diversity, and Inclusion and co-facilitator of the blanket exercise. Eldridge also shared the support efforts to have culturally relevant curriculum that promotes Indigenous history and identity.   

Samantha Eldridge, Director of the American Indian Resource Center, and co-facilitator of the blanket exercise shared that “historical and intergenerational trauma continues to impact Indigenous Peoples today. Understanding the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples moves us toward an equitable and inclusive campus and helps us better meet the particular social and cultural needs of the AI/AN population.”  

“We have a responsibility to learn, to understand, and contribute to reconciliation. It is our goal to lead efforts fur cultural awareness and embrace and welcome cultural differences.” said Dr. Paloma Cariello, Associate Dean of the School of Medicine Office of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Cariello added, “I look forward to future opportunities to engage students, staff, faculty and bring awareness to the community.”   

The exercise was followed by a talking circle facilitated by Nino Reyes, MSW from Sacred Circle Healthcare to reflect on what participants learned, experienced, and opened a safe space to ask questions. Mr. Reyes closed the event and sent everyone home in a good way.