Environmental quality is a determinant of personal and public health, which is one reason why the IJC is advised by a Health Professionals Advisory Board. For Indigenous peoples, environmental health is linked to far more than personal and public health. This article highlights how one Great Lakes-based Indigenous organization is enabling US tribes to build capacity for environmental health research and more.
I am a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe and descendant of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. In 2002, a sudden, unhappy realization hit me: I was out of touch with my tribe and all of the tribes in the state of Wisconsin. Looking for ways to reconnect and find fulfilling work aiding tribal people, I was hired at the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council later that year to work under a new program called the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health.
The center grew from tribal interest in research, first identified during a strategic planning session held between the Wisconsin Tribal Health Director Association and Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council’s Indian Health Program in fall 1999.
During that session, 11 member tribes identified a long-term goal to establish health research initiatives that would help reduce tribal distrust of research and researchers along with tribal health disparities, while building tribal health sciences capabilities.
With important input from the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, objectives and goals to address the lack of Native American healthcare professionals and biomedical researchers also were established. The US National Institute of Health’s Native American Research Center for Health program was identified as a valuable opportunity to meet these needs.
A grant was awarded to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council and in 2002, the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health, or Great Lakes NARCH for short, was established. It supports 34 Native American tribes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, along with four Urban Indian centers of the Indian Health Service Bemidji Area.
With no prior models or curricula, the Great Lakes NARCH program staff established its student experiential programming from scratch.
Various academic-tribal partnerships form the foundation of the program. Among these are internship opportunities for undergraduate and graduate-level native scholars, who are partnered with researchers across the area to develop their research skills and serve their communities. The overlap between programs and partnerships permits Great Lakes NARCH to adapt to unique challenges including coordination among geographically dispersed groups, scarcity of academic services in rural areas, vital cultural considerations and clear communication between researchers and tribal governments. These approaches provide best practices to aid other groups in establishing similar partnerships and initiating research opportunities.
Many of the most enduring and powerful partnerships allowed for personal growth and awareness for me.
Through the programs, I was able to understand the needs of tribal communities beyond research, including traditional food systems and how they impact tribal definitions of health, and tools to overcome historical trauma, food sovereignty and human trafficking.
For example, I was able to connect with tribal members and native graduate students to explore indigenous plants like traditional tobacco and ancient squash seeds and how they impact self-image and promote learning. After successful seasons of growing the ancient squash, known as gete-okosimaan, I passed seeds and the stories of growth and re-birth of traditional food systems to student researchers who studied the nutritional qualities of these squash.
I now lead the Great Lakes NARCH staff from the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council office on the Lac du Flambeau reservation in Wisconsin.
Great Lakes NARCH will continue to leverage funding from the National Institute of Health to assemble high quality programs and opportunities in the Bemidji region and support these important opportunities for students to participate in research and community engagement.
The multiple-component characteristic of the program, including research projects, student enhancement and capacity building, allow for interested parties to engage through singular or multiple avenues to work toward increasing the health status of Native American communities in the Bemidji area.
As my 18th work anniversary approaches, I remain passionate about seeking to improve the lives of all native people.
For more information, visit the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council online.
This article was co-authored by Gabrielle O’Keefe, a Ph.D. student at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, and Matthew Dellinger, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa and member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board.
Amy Poupart is program director of Great Lakes NARCH at the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin.