SEMII works to protect, educate and empower Native American communitiesThe Nonprofit Journal Project

South Eastern Michigan Indians, Inc. (SEMII), is a non-profit Urban Indian Center in Macomb County, providing human services for Native Americans and others eligible for services. Since 1975, we’ve worked to address employment, training and education in our community. 

As a Native person, I’m from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in what’s now Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When treaties were made with my people, we called ourselves Ojibwe, but Europeans heard and recorded Chippewa. So in their treaty with my tribe, we are legally identified as Chippewa, when in reality we are Ojibwe, one of the Three Fires encompassed by the Anishinaabe: Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodwe’aadamiinh.

Some of us, myself included, use terms such as Indian, North American Indian and Native American interchangeably because of the culture we’ve grown up in, and because different names have been used on our legal and sovereign tribal documents. But I think it’s our responsibility to teach others how to call us by our name.

At SEMII, I serve as executive director, co-directing with my husband, Chris Franklin. This nonprofit doesn’t require individuals to prove their Native American citizenship in order to receive certain services, to be members or to volunteer. We actually broke away from our original organization years ago because we know it’s difficult for some to do this, and we want to be a place of assistance and welcome. We do, however, require proof of tribal citizenship from our decision-making bodies. It's critical that Native people are the ones holding office and running our center. 

We do many things at SEMII, some are funded and some not. Two separate grants through the State of Michigan help support our culturally-relevant work to prevent, educate and reverse Type II diabetes in our community and to fight against commercial tobacco use, especially among our veterans. We make a distinction between cigarettes, a deadly product made by the commercial tobacco industry, and loose tobacco. We are Native people and tobacco is a spiritual medicine to us, as well as our right under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. We’ve done a tremendous amount of education with health departments and others to help people understand this difference. 

The amount of disease our people experience due to commercial tobacco is just overwhelming. In 2007, when we began this advocacy work, 47 percent of American Indians in Michigan smoked. It’s now 42 percent or slightly lower. This significant drop is due to the work being done directly with the tribes.

In our Native communities, diabetes is also a runaway epidemic. In some, it affects 80 to 90 percent of the population. We are working to reduce this. One of our greatest barriers to health is a lack of literacy in our communities. When we communicate with each other, we sit in a circle. Much of the health education we’ve experienced from others has included very clinical terms, stacks of paperwork and people talking down to us. We wanted to change that.

We developed a program in partnership with two doctoral candidates from the University of Michigan that uses our Circle of Life to address all the ways diabetes affects human beings: mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. We help people recognize those effects and decide for themselves what healthy changes they can make. We also provide food plans and blood sugar monitors. My husband is an example of someone who had diabetes and reversed it. We know this is possible, and I'm so thankful for the work this grant empowers us to do.

COVID-19 has taken lives from our Native communities locally and across the state. When it broke, we sent our staff home to work remotely or to apply for unemployment and stay in touch. My husband and I stayed at the office because we run a pantry here and knew food would be one of the first things to disappear. This program has always been about reducing hunger in the Native American community, but we’ve never confined it to this. If people come here for help, we help them, and in 2020, we had people come from as far as Detroit for food assistance. 

I embrace our teachings that we are responsible for one another. While that has often been shown culturally in our work, we’re looking for new ways to be inclusive of other communities who need extra help right now. We're just a small agency, but everything we have, if we can help people be healthy and ease their suffering, that's our goal.

All of our services have continued throughout the pandemic, many through virtual meetings. Now that we’re back in person by appointment only, it’s my job to make sure our people, staff and elders coming here are safe. When we’re in the building, we’re masked in small numbers.

Going virtual has actually allowed us to work with people we wouldn't otherwise know. We’re talking with Native people across the state about services needed in our areas and shared concerns. Currently, we’re addressing issues of lateral violence in our communities and bringing many different people to the table to help mediate this. Everything we do is being done differently now and our staff is finding solutions. We have to change and be like the water. If rocks are thrown into the water, it knows how to flow around them and keep moving. That's what we have to do as human beings and as human services.

Lately, I’ve been in many difficult meetings triggered by the bodies of all those children found at residential facilities in Canada. This has been heartbreaking to me. Once they start looking, they're going to find even more children in this country. I grew up here, I’ve worked in other states, and with tribes across Southeastern Michigan for close to 30 years. I haven’t come across one Native person, either from Canada or the U.S., who doesn’t share this history, an ancestor kidnapped as a child by Indian agents and put into a residential boarding school. The separation of families, the experiences these children had, this history has devastated our communities and made us sick in so many ways. My hope is that by ripping this wound open, there will finally be an opportunity to heal. That's part of our commitment here.

One reason for an agency like SEMII is because when our people can't pay their rent or utility bills, the last place they want to ask for help is the government. We're here to act as a buffer, to show them how to access services and to advocate on their behalf. As Native people, we're the ones charged with helping to create a healthier future for our children and grandchildren. 

Euphemia Franklin is the executive director of South Eastern Michigan Indians, Inc. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.