By Lori Jayne Carlson – freelance journalist
Robert Mann (Woonągire Wąąksik) serves as the Ho-Chunk Nation (HCN) Healing to Wellness Court Project Coordinator. Mann was recently named the winner of the 2021 “Bay dt ge:vik a’hanja” Wellness Court Advocate Award by the Tribal Law and Policy Institute (TLPI). The national recognition is given to honor wellness court practitioners “who have been instrumental in the success of their court, and thereby in the healing and restoration of their community.” The institute recognized Mann as a valuable “leader, innovator and advocate for healing” who is committed to his team and who “tirelessly” serves participants of the court.
Five years ago, United States Marine Veteran Mann, worked for the HCN Veterans Office. When he learned of the HCN Wellness Court project coordinator position he said that he researched wellness and treatment courts and learned legal terminology.
Mann explained that wellness/treatment courts are evidence-based programs in which national best practices (participant responsibility, goal setting, focus on participant strengths and resources, collaboration and partnership and community-based services and resources) are followed. According to the TLPI, “tribal healing to wellness courts bring together community-healing resources with the tribal justice process, using a team approach to achieve the physical and spiritual healing of the participant and the well-being of the community.”
Mann explained that tribal courts are unique from other treatment/wellness courts in that they consider traditions, cultures, and customs of the tribe in its rehabilitative services. Earlier in his career, Mann served as the HCN Heritage Preservation Director, so he said he felt he was a good fit for the project coordinator position.
“When addicted for a long period, a lot of times they lose their identity,” Mann said. “So, I try to help them regain their identity and help them to know where they belong in the tribe.” Mann explained that helping participants of the court to understand and know their lineage and the supports they have with their extended tribal family, even knowing how Mann is related to participants, helps them to identify and heal from their addictions. “All Ho-Chunk are related in one way or another,” Mann explained.
Mann also serves as the advisory board member on the Equity & Inclusion Committee for Wisconsin Association of Treatment Court Professionals (WATCP) and has recently organized other Wisconsin tribal wellness court coordinators within the WATCP. In addition, Mann is regularly asked to speak to courts and law enforcement on cultural awareness, equity and diversity.
In addition to his work in the HCN court, Mann explained he also acts as an advocate for HC participants in county treatments courts. He explained that he does not try to change what other courts do but tries to help them to see that tribal members might have additional needs. “Participants might have cultural needs,” Mann said, “or the court might have questions about participants’ cultural needs.”
“The way I look at it, a person with a substance abuse problem can forget about where they belong and they often hurt family ties and connections, creating a separation. They lose their way. They call it a “dazed individual.” No connection. No direction.”
“I had my own issues when I was younger,” Mann shared. “I was told by an elder, “Alcohol and drugs are really making you sick. We don’t have medicines for that. What you need to do is to follow the white man’s ways at treating that sickness.”
“I didn’t really understand that until later on,” Mann continued. “But, when I got sober,” he said he felt he was on a “wellness journey” and his cultural traditions and customs greatly helped him on that journey.
Mann said his elders also told him that he was here for a reason … just like the animals and plants.
“I learned a long time ago that my role (reason) is to help people,” Mann explained.
His reward, Mann said, is seeing the transformation in those he helps. “From when they start to when they graduate from the court, Mann said he can see the change in them … physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
But it’s not just Mann alone. He explained a key component of healing to wellness courts is collaboration and praised all members of the HCN Healing to Wellness Court team. “Collaboration is a creative response to substance abuse and crime and is necessary to ensure tribal members, dispersed widely throughout the state, have access to treatment court. Collaboration between tribal healing to wellness court and other treatment courts provides an opportunity to educate communities about Native American culture, fosters diversity in programs and increases service opportunities for tribal members.”
“The pandemic created many obstacles not only for our court, but other treatment courts as well. Even random drug testing, a best practice to keep participants substance free, was halted until a plan could be devised to resume testing,” Mann explained. “The Wą Ehi Hoci closed its doors in March of 2019. This created a real problem as our only means of communicating with one another was through phone calls. Staying in touch with participants was very important and the only way that could be accomplished was by doing home visits.”
“I had a plan to fix this,” Mann continued. “I did home visits in the midst of the pandemic. If we didn’t keep in touch, there was a risk of them relapsing. I had to get there and see them.”
Mann knew he was putting himself at risk and had to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) for the visits. “Finding that stuff was hard during the pandemic. But I got suited up and visited homes to see how they were doing every week and helped them fill out their paperwork.”
“It all comes from here,” Mann, the 2021 winner of the Bay dt ge:vik a’hanja – Wellness Court Advocate Award said, laying his hand on his heart. “This work comes from the heart.”