A university is using its three-year, more than $1.4 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, plus a match of more than $720,000 from the North Dakota Higher Education Challenge Fund, to establish the American Indian Public Health Resource Center.
The resource center is meant to improve American Indian public health programs, and North Dakota State University is targeting North Dakota tribes whose disease and death rates significantly exceed that of the general population, university officials said when announcing the project on June 18. The center will be part of NDSU’s program, the only program in the country with an American Indian specialization.
“The American Indian population in the Northern Plains has some of the worst health disparities in the nation,” said Donald Warne, director of the Master of Public Health program and the new center. “Most of these health disparities are preventable, so the role of public health is essential.”
The general population, on average, is healthier and lives longer than the American Indian population. American Indians have twice the prevalence of diabetes and nearly six times the mortality rate from the disease. In North Dakota, average age at death is 75.7 years for the general population and 54.7 years for American Indians.
“We have many unmet needs in regard to healthcare,” said Phyllis Young, a member of the Standing Rock Tribal Council’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee. “We see this as an opportunity to address some of our health issues and concerns in our tribal communities. The American Indian Public Health Resource Center will provide the opportunity to bring in much needed resources. We look forward to our expanding partnership with NDSU.”
The center will address inequalities in American Indian health and mortality through a four-prong approach:
Public health services and programming: This includes health promotion and disease prevention, such as tobacco cessation, as well as technical assistance with community health needs assessments, public health strategic planning, grant writing and other assessments.
Public health research: Research will follow a model where the tribes determine research priorities—a shift from a researcher-driven model.
Public health education: This will include expanding the American Indian public health workforce by working with tribal colleges to develop public health training programs and build bridge programs to the Master of Public Health program and the American Indian Public Health Graduate Certificate Program. It also will include developing health education materials for a variety of audiences, including community members, the public health workforce, tribal leaders and other stakeholders.
Public health policy: As sovereign nations, tribes can develop their health policies. The center will work with tribes to develop new policies and refine existing policies as well as coordinate policies and data-sharing agreements with state health departments, local public health agencies, Medicare and Medicaid.
“Establishing the resource center will help provide technical assistance to tribal communities in the upper Midwest such as managing their own health systems and operations,” said Shelley Stingley, program director for the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Rural Healthcare Program. “Through health care self-determination, they will have a better chance to improve disparate health outcomes.”
Warne will serve as director of the center. He is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and is the only American Indian Master of Public Health director in the country.
The center will employ up to 10 people, including an operational manager responsible for leading day-to-day work, project managers, support staff and graduate assistants.
The center will provide hands-on experiences for NDSU public health graduate students and tribal college students through assistantships, internships, student projects and other activities.
Petra Reyna One Hawk, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a student in the Master of Public Health program, will work at the center through a graduate assistantship. “I know firsthand some of the struggles we have on the reservation,” she said. “In our family, we have always believed in education, so I see this as an opportunity to learn and to achieve some of the goals others and I have for our communities to overcome some of those struggles.”
A committee of representatives from each of the four tribes in North Dakota and the National Indian Health Board will advise the center. The advisory committee will ensure center activities respond appropriately to the public health needs of tribal communities and identify opportunities for future activities.
“Many of the health challenges Tribal Nations in North Dakota face can be addressed early on through quality research, programming, policy and ultimately work in tribal communities,” said Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. “The center will provide our regional Tribal Nations a huge needed resource in combating those health challenges for today and tomorrow. It is definitely a game changer.”
NDSU is recognized as one of the nation’s top 108 public and private universities by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.
The Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective nonprofits in a variety of selected areas. Since 2008, when the Trust began its active grantmaking, it has committed more than $1 billion to a wide range of charitable organizations. The Trust’s Rural Healthcare Program funds innovative projects that use information technologies to connect rural patients to emergency medical care, bring the latest medical therapies to patients in remote areas and provide state-of-the-art training for rural hospitals and EMS personnel. To date, this program has awarded more than $217 million to organizations and initiatives in the upper Midwest states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana. For more information on the Trust and its programs, visit www.helmsleytrust.org.