In this work, you are dealing with people’s spirits. You will make other people sick if you aren’t well when you try to do healing work with others.

— Angela Fernandez, UW School of Social Work

American Indians and Alaska Natives are under-represented among professionals in science and healthcare. One approach to increasing the number of Native people in these fields was showcased at a March 2014 conference at the University of Washington (UW): Preparing Our Future Native American Health Leaders. The goal was to encourage and equip Native students for careers in healthcare. Native undergraduate and graduate students from UW, Washington State University, Northwest Indian College, and other local community colleges participated in this three-day event.

The Preparing Our Future Native American Health Leaders conference focused on helping students build practical skills in areas such as time management, preparation for the GRE and MCAT tests, and use of library services. The keynote speaker was Ada Deer, MSW, a Menominee tribal member and activist who oversaw the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1993 to 1997 as Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Before this appointment, she worked tirelessly and successfully on behalf of the Menominee Tribe to win back federal recognition, a status achieved in 1973. Ms. Deer encouraged Native students to “barrel through any barriers” they find themselves up against, including limitations based on gender and cultural heritage.

The second day of the conference involved traveling around Seattle to clinics, non-profit organizations, and research institutions that both employ and serve Native people. One stop was the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB), a community health clinic located just east of the International District that serves a large population of American Indians and Alaska Natives. SIHB provides primary care and social services, favoring culturally-based interventions to improve the health and wellbeing of Native people.

Native students participating in the conference then met with researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where we took part in a hands-on demonstration of blood fractionation. This process separates blood into its component parts to enable assessment for disease markers, including markers of cancer. Cancer research is extremely important for Native communities, since recent data show that cancer is the leading cause of death for Native women and the second-leading cause for Native men.

Next, we visited the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, an initiative based at Seattle Children’s Research Institute to improve birth outcomes, including outcomes in Native families. There we learned about the importance of research on biospecimens, which are samples of biological material such as skin, hair, nails, blood, saliva, and urine. We also toured a biospecimen repository and discussed how this type of research can improve maternal and child health in Native communities.

Our final stop was the Chief Seattle Club, a social service organization whose members are American Indians and Alaska Natives. Club members receive basic daily services such as meals, hygiene care, and healthcare. Since many members have no stable housing, they also receive housing assistance and job training. Club staff told us about the importance of culturally-based services and the need for a healthcare force that can deliver them.

All these activities gave participating students an excellent opportunity to connect with each other, to network with Native academic faculty, and to develop mentee relationships with the elders who so generously shared their stories and wisdom. The importance of self-care and cultural connection was a recurring theme in our discussions. We learned about strategies to cope with stressful circumstances while avoiding adverse effects on a spiritual level. Without self-care, we were told, our work would be less effective. Angela Fernandez, a Menominee graduate student at the UW School of Social Work, explained it in this way: “In this work, you are dealing with people’s spirits. You will make other people sick if you aren’t well when you try to do healing work with others.”


Many thanks to the sponsors of Preparing Our Future Native American Health Leaders:
University of Washington: Partnerships for Native Health
University of Washington: Center for Genomics and Healthcare Equity
University of Washington School of Social Work: Indigenous Wellness Research Institute
Washington State University: Native American Health Sciences