Photos by Patrice Kohl, for the Redoubt Reporter. A “Łuq’a Nagh Ghilghuzht” sculpture by Joel Isaak depicts traditional Dena’ina life at fish camp outside the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s new Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai.
Clarification: It was incorrectly reported that the Dena’ina Wellness Center is currently seeing all veterans and is considering expanding medical services to the public. Currently, only Alaska Native and American Indian veterans receive VA services through the Dena’ina Wellness Center. As a community mental health center, behavioral health services are open to the public. Other services are available to Indian Health Service beneficiaries.
Through the joint venture award, Indian Health Service funding supports operation and maintenance for a minimum of 20 years. The state of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Division of Community and Regional Affairs provided $20 million to the project.
By Jenny Neyman
For the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, a new building in Old Town Kenai is an indication that the tide has turned.
A gradual erosion of culture, connection and community has reversed, and what was washed away, grain by grain, as if by the lapping pull of receding waves, is rushing back in, not only replacing what’s been lost, but reaching a new high-water mark.
That mark is a substantial one, both in its 52,000-square-foot physical form — the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai — and in what it represents for the tribe.
“The Dena’ina word for it is ‘naqantughedul.’ For the tribe it means the tide is going out and it’s turning and going back in,” said Jaylene Peterson-Nyren, executive director. “It means the culture, the people, the land and just the lifestyle has been going away for many, many years, and it has taken a turn with this facility. It’s coming back.”
The building isn’t just a health clinic, nor was the motivation to construct it simply some tipping of an equation of funding and client base and service needs. It grew from a need to come together — to reconnect, strengthen and grow — and to improve health beyond just the physical.
The lobby of the new, 52,000-square-foot Dena’Ina Wellness Center is meant to be an area for gathering and socializing, more than just a medical clinic reception lobby.
“We wanted to design not just a health clinic, but we wanted to look at wellness from a holistic perspective, and that means not just that you’d have your checkups and you check out well. It means social and economic wellness, it means educational wellness — knowledge. It encompasses relationships across the board with customers who come in to seek services and for staff who are all working together on behalf of our customers,” Peterson-Nyren said.
Fittingly, then, the facility consolidates the tribe’s three health services programs under one roof — medical, dental and behavioral — as well as expands new services to address the wellness of a person as a whole, not just whether they’re running a fever.
“We try to focus on prevention and intervention. We want to encourage people to return. That’s one of the reasons we built the Gathering Space (building entrance room) is we want people to want to be here,” she said.
Along with being a center for holistic wellness, the brand-new facility, with construction starting in August 2012 and the grand opening ceremony June 12, is also a hub of social connection — an area of wellness which the tribe believes also needs care.
It’s designed to facilitate both — new equipment and the latest technology to aid the delivery of quality medical services, and a welcoming, calming, comfortable design to encourage people to come and enjoy the facility. The entry leads into the Gathering Space, with a large, open, airy design and windows stretching floor to the second-story ceiling above. A stage area anchors the wall facing the doors, while a reception desk, curved as if beckoning a visitor further into the building, stands to the right of the stage. To the left of the entrance is a wide staircase giving the feel of floating upward as it parallels the windows looking out over Old Town toward the mouth of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet. Upstairs are balcony railings to allow a bird’s-eye view of the stage and circular Oculus feature below, which will have a commissioned art piece suspended above it.
The whole space can be configured for large gatherings, such as the grand opening of the facility, which was packed to standing room only. Over 1,000 people came through the facility during the two days of tours, presentations and festivities, Peterson-Nyren said.
“I think the response has been tremendous,” she said. “It was amazing to feel that community support, just everyone showed up.”