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Writer Abaki Beck grew up near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana hunting for and picking medicinal plants on behalf of family members who had arthritis, including huckleberry leaves, mint and others used to treat pain.

"A lot of members of my family, my grandma, use a Blackfeet medicine on a regular basis," said Abaki, who is Blackfeet and Red River Métis. "She still goes to Western medical doctors for, like, hip replacement surgery, for example. But many of my family members still use Blackfeet medicine on a daily basis, oftentimes in conjunction with Western medicine."

Beck is a student at the University of Minnesota, working toward a doctorate in public health, with plans for working in that field, with a focus on Native American communities. "I've done quite a bit of research on the Blackfeet Reservation and on urban Indian communities both here and in Seattle," where she obtained a master's degree at Washington University, she said.

In the spring of 2022, Beck was contacted by Procedure Press and author Emily F. Peters, who had come across a blog post Beck wrote on a site for Native students about Indigenous futurism, and asked her to contribute a piece to "Artists Remaking Medicine." The book is a collection of essays, compiled and in some cases written by Peters, in which artists in various media consider a multitude of ways to improve the country's health care system.

Improving American health care might sound like a daunting undertaking, given the system's monumental problems, including medical costs being the leading cause of bankruptcy for American families, prolonged debate over the Affordable Care Act and astronomical medical bills that can result from conflicts between providers and insurers over plan details.

But Peters said those are problems all Americans can contribute to solving. Solutions to the problems needn't come entirely from doctors or clinics and hospitals or insurance companies or Medicare and Medicaid, she said.

"We try to say, 'Well, there's a villain here,' but there's not a villain; it's all of us together," Peters said. "We need to stop pointing fingers and start getting creative and working on our imagination, and just even thinking about what we want our health care system to look like."

Peters, a marketing communications specialist for a physician's network, had the idea for the book in 2016 after her own near death, during childbirth, from an amniotic fluid embolism (ultimately, she and the baby were both fine). She started mulling over problems in the health care system and realized that, as a writer, she could contribute to solving them.

"I was seeing things continuing to get more expensive and more damaging to the people and the medical professionals working in our sector, and all the many, many issues that we have in our health care system in the U.S.," said Peters, who in 2019 published the book "Procedure: Women Remaking Medicine."

So she started thinking about what could be done, including small-scale improvements. She knew a musician who designed an alarm whose sound would be less disruptive in intensive-care units, and a photographer who, after her own heart and lung transplant left her with scars across her chest, took photos of transplant survivors in hopes surgeons will see their patients as "real people" and locate the scars less intrusively to the side.

Improving health care in the United States doesn't necessarily entail a complete overhaul, or turning the country's structure into a European-style single-payer system, Peters said. It could be improved in myriad ways while retaining its American identity.

"I want an American health care system that feels American, with the best of our values of independence, entrepreneurial spirit and invention," Peters said. "And I think that's achievable."

A worldwide impact

When she received her assignment, Beck knew she wanted to write about traditional land-based and ecological knowledge in Indigenous communities. She did a little googling and asking around, and wound up focusing on a couple of efforts.

One is a Colorado site being used as a produce garden — watered with precipitation, not outside irrigation — as "an artistic endeavor and cultural space meant to revitalize indigenous dryland ecosystems," she writes. The objective is to familiarize the public with desert food systems.

The people who manage the site hold workshops on topics such as preparing and eating cactus, and are working on a cookbook with strategies for living in a drier and hotter world, hoping to mitigate the damage of desertification and climate change. They also manage a vendor bike cart they use to present food and ecology workshops, "a mobile eco-studio."

Beck did not need to be introduced to the concept of eating cactus as food. "My mom makes a really good soup with bison, cactus and hominy that's delicious and that I've had every year of my life," she said.

Beck also wrote about a New Mexico painter who uses art to address the health and environmental impacts of abandoned uranium mines, "another legacy of colonial environmental exploitation," Beck said. Her paintings illustrate how uranium damages DNA, but also that incorporating zinc in daily diets may help mitigate the toxicity of the uranium exposure.

The art is intended to connect Indigenous and Western knowledge to create healthier futures for Indigenous people, Beck writes.

"The whole world impacts our health, not just our interactions with the health care system itself," Beck said.

Which, of course, is the reason everyone can play a part in improving the system, even if nobody can singlehandedly redesign, say, the insurance industry. If the system includes the health of the community and environment, individual action can be effective.

"I think Abaki's chapter, especially, really shows that if you can imagine a better future, there's so much power in that," Peters said. "What if we learned from our Indigenous communities around the ways that they have supported health, and we integrated that into our health care systems, as well?"