Personal and Professional Growth Go Hand-in-Hand


Brett LarsonInaajimowin Staff Writer

Briana Michels doesn’t always keep her personal and professional lives separate. While that may be a problem for some, it has led to growth for Briana, as well as for the employees of Grand Casino Hinckley and the members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Briana is now a Learning Specialist at Grand Casino Hinckley, but in her previous role as Risk and Safety Specialist, she dealt with some serious mental health situations with employees and guests that led her to question her knowledge of the topic.

”After I dealt with those situations, I questioned whether we handled those situations right — if I said the right things, did the right things, or had the knowledge I needed,” said Briana. ”I knew that I didn’t, and it turned out nobody else did either.”

Briana called the incident a ”huge eye-opener.”

”You see all these things in the news about mental health issues, and our veterans, and the need to do more, and I saw it first hand. So I made some contacts and developed a training program for our associates on mental health awareness.”

Several initiatives were undertaken:

— Formation of the Bridge Group, with the slogan ”Linking associates to resources they need and providing support and understanding”;

— Training in QPR (question, persuade, refer), Safe Talk (how to talk about suicide honestly), and ”Post-Vention”; and

— A mental health resource area with information on chemical dependency, homelessness, problem gambling, counseling services, and other programs. ”I know it’s getting utilized because I have to stock it,” Briana said.

The team’s efforts resulted in the Employer of the Year award given to Grand Casino Hinckley by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The award was presented on Saturday, November 3, during the luncheon at NAMI’s annual conference at the St. Paul RiverCentre.

Sue Abderholden, the Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota, said, ”This award recognizes an employer that has demonstrated support for hiring and retaining people with mental illness; has taken extraordinary measures to educate its employees about mental illness; or has created a supportive workplace for families who have a loved one with mental illness.”

Briana is humble about the success of the program and grateful to those who supported the initiative, including Wanetta Thompson, Robin Roatch, and Deborah Ruff. ”I didn’t do it for the notoriety,” she said. ”We had an issue that needed to be fixed.”

The experience has also brought Briana’s attention to issues in her own life and community.
”I’ve been on my own healing journey, so I’ve come to see the importance of mental health,” she said. ”When you get your mind right, everything else falls into place.”

Seeking a sign

While Briana was working to improve her workplace, she was also going through a hard time personally — grieving the deaths of her uncle, Dave Matrious, and her grandmother, who died two weeks later.

The deaths of her loved ones caused her to question her spirituality, culture, and the meaning of life. ”For a couple years after their death, I wanted a vision, a sign from them telling me which way to go, and it just wasn’t happening,” she said.

As she was struggling to make sense of it all, she planned a trip with a friend who was also at a crossroads. In the whirlwind of activity leading up to her time off, a co-worker invited her to a conference.

Briana knew she didn’t have time to attend, but she was committed, and the night before the conference she broke down in her kitchen, crying and praying, calling out to her uncle for a sign.
The next morning, Briana read the agenda and became dismayed. ”We shouldn’t be here,” she thought. ”This conference isn’t for us. It’s on how to better serve American Indian clients, but we’re not therapists, we’re risk specialists.”

But when a drum group from Bois Forte began to play, something happened.

”I’m a believer that things are put in your path for a reason,” Briana said. ”As they started to play, I felt the presence of my uncle. When you get a sign like that, it just hits your gut. It’s not just a coincidence; it’s real, and you have to figure out what it means.”

The focus of the conference was historical trauma and was put on by Rosemary White Shield and the TXT4 Life Program. Historical trauma is defined by Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart as ”the accumulative emotional and psychological pain over an individual’s lifespan and across generations as the result of massive group trauma.”

And the message that came through to Briana was clear: ”You need to heal your own people.”
”It wasn’t like ’You’re going to be a medicine woman,’” Briana clarified, ”but more like ’You’ve got some gifts and tools that can help your community.’”

Mending Broken Hearts

After the conference, Briana began searching for ways to learn more about historical trauma and to share what she learned with her people.

She came across the Mending Broken Hearts curriculum offered by White Bison. The program provides culturally-based healing from grief, loss, and intergenerational trauma.

Briana jumped at the chance to receive training, which she attended in Colorado Springs last December. Not one to waste time, Briana started planning to implement the program as soon as she got home.

She received help from Kate Kalk, Kala Roberts, and Kristian Theisz of the Family Violence Prevention Program. They had been discussing how to bring historical trauma training to Band communities when Briana walked in the door.

Monica Haglund, District III’s chemical dependency counselor, had also trained in Mending Broken Hearts and offered to teach the class with Briana. Her wisdom and experience helped immensely, Briana said.

They offered the program in District III, and it was life-changing for those involved. ”Responses we’ve gotten from DIII are so powerful,” said Briana. ”This is exactly what we need in our community.”

After the intense eight-week program, the group of 12 has continued to meet monthly, and in December, Mending Broken Hearts training came to Chiminising (Isle) in District IIa.
Mending Broken Hearts will be offered in other communities in the future.

In November, Briana gave a presentation on Mending Broken Hearts and historical trauma to the Pine County Board, sharing the stories of the Sandy Lake Tragedy and the Nelson Act.

”This is what I’ve been searching for — to be able to get this class out there and help provide the healing we’ve needed,” said Briana. ”It’s not a cure-all, but it will definitely awaken people.”
Our personal lives often benefit from what we learn on the job, and the workplace is always in need of the wisdom and the heart we develop when we’re off the clock.

Briana’s story shows that personal growth can lead to improvements at Tribal workplaces and in Native communities.

Mending Broken Hearts

The Mending Broken Hearts programs provide culturally-based healing from grief, loss, and Intergenerational Trauma, especially for native peoples from the United States and Canada.

Unresolved grief is demonstrated in the many social issues that Native people experience, as represented in the ”sick” forest illustration. Traditional healthy cultures have been made ”sick” by the anger, guilt, shame and fear, passed on from generation to generation. This creates a ”culture” that is shame-based. This sense of shame and unresolved grief contributes to the behavioral, emotional, physical, and spiritual issues that challenge wellness.


Photo: Briana Michels presented on intergenerational trauma at the Pine County Board meeting in November. Photo by Traci LeBrun, Pine County Courier.