The recently launched Center for Indigenous Innovation and Health Equity has been in the works for several years. The Center is a partnership between Oklahoma State University and the University of Hawaii and other institutions, organizations and Indigenous communities. This undated photo shows some of the team members involved in the effort. (Photo by Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan)

A new Center focused on health equity among Indigenous populations is pairing Native food traditions and practices with Western-style health research to assess outcomes. 

The recently launched Center for Indigenous Innovation and Health Equity has been in the works for several years. The Center is a partnership between Oklahoma State University and the University of Hawaii and other institutions, organizations, and Indigenous communities. 

The Center received multi-million-dollar grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. It will support efforts to address health equity among American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) populations.

“In the United States, both AI/AN and NHPI populations experience a high burden of health disparities and inequities,” said Felicia Collins, deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health, in a statement. “Identifying the health disparities that impact these communities and the culturally-grounded best practices and approaches that work to reduce those disparities is essential to improving the health of indigenous populations throughout the country.”

For too long Western medical ideas and ideals have been imposed on traditional Indigenous communities,  Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan, executive director of the Center for Indigenous Health Research and Policy at Oklahoma State University, told The Daily Yonder in an interview. 

“The fact is, Native communities have long histories of promoting and fostering health and wellness,” said Jernigan, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and professor of Rural Health at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences who was a key leader in the Center’s development and fundraising. “And these need to be centered: these traditions, these practices need to be restored. And so what’s so unique is that we were able to create a Center where the Indigenous models of health will be at the forefront.”

Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan visits a farm in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in this undated photo. Jernigan has partnered with University of Hawaii researchers, other organizations, and Indigenous communities to create the  Center for Indigenous Innovation and Health Equity. (Photo by Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan)

She added that at the Center, traditional models of health, including food sovereignty, will be paired with Western scientific data collection to track the impact and efficacy. “We hypothesize that we will find great value and benefit from these traditional practices,” she said.  

Jernigan partnered with Kamuela Enos, director of the University of Hawaii Office of Indigenous Innovation, and Aimee Malia Grace, director of the University of Hawaii Office of Strategic Health Initiatives.

While programmatic pieces are still being worked out, Jernigan said that as a Choctaw citizen, one idea might be restoring traditional community gardens because the Choctaw Nation has historically been an agricultural-based tribe. 

“We have specific planting methods,” she said. “And we have specific relationships and obligations to the way that we grow our food and how we care for the land. “Restoring such practices would not only increase access to fresh and local food but provide for increased physical activity outdoors, she added. 

In Hawaii, the Center will research and scale traditional practices, such as kalo farming, traditional dance, or eating traditional foods, that may have significant positive impacts on health for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as well as American Indian and Alaska Native populations nationally. The kalo plant, a root vegetable also known as taro, is typically grown in a patch of land set aside for cultivation.

Enos said there are similar health disparities among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and American Indians and Alaska Native populations. He noted that many traditional practices are tied to the land.

“By restoring access and opportunities for traditional practice to rural communities, but sometimes urban ones as well…the restoration of these practices should create measurable change in their health and well-being,” Enos said. 

He added that it is important that the work is led by the communities involved. 

Although Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Alaska Native communities are culturally and geographically diverse, all experience an unequal burden of conditions, including hypertension and other conditions. 

Grace said other areas of research and investigation may look into how to improve the lives of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander veterans. 

“I was learning that a lot of American Indian practices have, or cultures have, ceremonies before going to war and ceremonies upon returning from war. And that really helps to decrease Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in those populations, as I understand,” she said. “That is an amazing thing to think about as we try to think about how to decrease PTSD or other health problems among our veterans.”

She added that there needs to be a change in the way of thinking about Indigenous communities as well. While there are many health disparities compared to non-Indigenous counterparts, there is also a richness to the traditions and practices. 

“We’re sort of thinking of culture as intervention.”