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Symposium Brings Cultural Knowledge and Collaboration on Health Issues

4/17/14 under General News Women's Health



Running Strong for American Indian Youth's program areas include women and children’s health. Specifically we support the First Environment Collaborative, headed by Running Strong board member Katsi Cook, which approaches health in a holistic way. The program considers factors like historical trauma, and how they affect women’s cultural identity and health throughout the life course.

And indeed, American Indian women face many health struggles.

  • In 2009, the infant mortality rate experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native women was almost 25% higher than the total rate in the US (8.47 vs. 6.39/1000 live births), and it was going up while the rate for all other racial groups was decreasing (CDC, 2013).
  • It has also been estimated that American Indian women experience sexual violence at a rate 2.5 times higher than all other races (US DOJ, 2000).

Hearing these statistics, one wonders how we can better support healthy lives for American Indian women, and all American Indian people.

Programs like the First Environment Collaborative help, but it is important to gain further understanding about what American Indian health and wellbeing means, and how it can be promoted. A recent workshop and symposium at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), cohosted by the National Museum of Natural History, shared this kind of knowledge.

A planning committee that included Katsi Cook put together a workshop and symposium at the NMAI on “Patterns of Native Health and Wellbeing.” The symposium, which featured talks on topics such as “Environmental Degradation and Mental Health,” and “Prayer and the Spiritual in Health Ways,” was both the culmination of over a year’s worth of planning, and the initiation of an interdisciplinary collaborative to provide greater insight and public knowledge on Native health issues.

In order to foster this collaborative, the planning committee held a two day workshop preceding the symposium to bring together health professionals, scholars, community leaders, and community-based researchers from within Native American communities. The workshop offered a rare opportunity for these parties to meet, share ideas, and make pathways toward collaboration. It also served as the jumping off point for increasing public understanding of the factors affecting health in Native communities.

During the first day of the workshop, participants discussed three themes: building cross-cultural concepts, intergenerational knowledge, and language and health. This day was focused on considering the views of Native American community members. The second day challenged participants to build collaborative frameworks to utilize with health and culture research and programming.

The final day of the event was the public symposium, at which speakers involved in the workshops presented on topics related to Native wellbeing. The themes of the first workshop day were clearly present here, as wellbeing was related to passing cultural knowledge to future generations, language was emphasized as a key expression of cultural identity, and other connections were made. The symposium particularly emphasized using cultural values from within Native communities to solve major health issues. With an in-person and a digital audience that included everyone from federal agency staff to museum patrons who impulsively decided to attend, the symposium brought the ideas of the workshops to a broad public audience and encouraged future discussion and action.

In particular, Cook expressed that there has been a great response from the digital community, which suggests further collaborative action will be taken. An example of the future work that the workshop and symposium has already sparked is another workshop-symposium event focused on Native health and culture, specifically in the area of maternal and child health, that is being planned at Western Carolina University for a future date.

The planning committee behind the NMAI/NMNH symposium included Jose Barreiro and Administrative Assistant Rose Marie Estevez of the NMAI and Gwyneira Isaacs of NMNH, as well as Cook.

Running Strong is glad to play a role in supporting projects like the NMAI event, which further knowledge, awareness, and cooperation around American Indian health.

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