Launched in fall 2012, the Master of Public Health program at NDSU offers the only American Indian Public Health specialization in the country.
The program is designed to prepare graduates to work with and improve the health of American Indians, and it is already helping students positively impact health disparities in those populations.
Jamie Holding Eagle was attracted to the program for the chance to learn how to better implement healthy lifestyle changes. Originally from Fargo with parents from North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, she initially wanted to become a doctor. Holding Eagle turned her focus to public health so she could put all of her energy into prevention.
She helps maintain five Fargo-Moorhead community gardens used by about 130 American Indian and new American families. Holding Eagle said fresh, natural produce helps prevent some of the health issues, such as diabetes, that plague these populations.
Holding Eagle said community gardens have other benefits, too. They draw from American Indian traditions, such as preserving heirloom and open-pollinated seeds each season.
“Indigenous food systems allow the community to be connected with its food,” Holding Eagle said. “It helps preserve seed biodiversity and allows Native folks to reconnect with their culture.”
Public health provides front-line care
Sheridan McNeil has spent her career addressing health care needs of her community. The lifelong resident of Standing Rock Indian Reservation is another member of the program’s American Indian Public Health specialization. She spent the last 10 years educating fellow tribal members about diabetes.
McNeil recently was promoted to health education director for the reservation, which is comprised of nine communities and 2.3 million acres in south-central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota. She now is in charge of educating nearly 14,000 members about a variety of health topics.
In early September, McNeil traveled from her Fort Yates, N.D., office to conduct rapid HIV screenings and prepare for a children’s dental education event. September and October were focused on prostate and breast cancer awareness. She also oversees Standing Rock’s substance abuse and tobacco prevention programs.
When she started her new role, she wasn’t prepared for the number of children suffering from what are typically adult health problems. She was shocked when she started conducting K-12 health screenings and tabulating body mass index numbers for the reservation’s youth. “The levels of overweight students and irregular blood pressure for 8- and 9-year-old kids just broke my heart,” McNeil said. “We need to fix this.”
She is pursuing a Master of Public Health degree to address the health problems she sees in the younger generation as well as the other health care needs of the population she serves. “Furthering your education gives you the tools and resources to be able to make some improvements,” McNeil said.
According to the Indian Health Service, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a life expectancy 4.1 years less than the rest of the U.S. Of the 10 leading causes of death listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many are largely preventable, including heart disease, chronic liver disease and suicide. Almost 12 percent of the people she works with are affected by diabetes.
Public health workers can make a difference by educating people about healthful lifestyles or the steps they need to take to prevent complications from chronic health conditions.
Public health professionals also play an important role for American Indians because they help fill gaps in health care.
The Indian Health Service is responsible for providing federal health services to 565 federally recognized tribes. Indian Health Service-affiliated hospitals and clinics serve any registered American Indian/Alaska Native, regardless of tribe or income. However, the only service-affiliated hospitals in the region are in Fort Yates and Belcourt, N.D., and Red Lake and Cass Lake, Minn.
This makes it difficult for an American Indian who leaves his or her tribal home to receive health care services. The scarcity of facilities also forces reservation residents to travel farther to receive health care. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey issued in February, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest national poverty rate at 27 percent, which creates further challenges to improving overall population health.
“As a Native American tribal member, nurse and health educator, I have seen firsthand the devastating results of the grave health disparities and inequities that continue to exist among Native people, both urban and those living on reservations,” said Donna Grandbois, assistant professor of nursing.
Offering a specialization in American Indian Public Health is a positive step.
Master of Public Health faculty
McNeil and Holding Eagle said they were drawn to the Master of Public Health program in part because they would be learning from health care experts who also are Native Americans.
Director Don Warne was raised in Kyle, S.D., and is a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, which is based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He has spent much of his career promoting diabetes prevention in the American Indian community. He said it was a longstanding goal to come home and help those in the region.
“We don’t have to cross oceans to find third-world conditions,” Warne said, referring to American Indian health disparities.
Warne is one of three core American Indian faculty teaching in the NDSU program. This summer, he was one of four nominees the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians presented to President Barack Obama for the U.S. Surgeon General position. Linda Frizzell, American Indian data coordinator, is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Grandbois is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation and one of only two American Indian gerontologists in the country.
“It really shows the university’s dedication to education for our American Indian population, not only for North Dakota but for the nation,” McNeil said. “It opens up so many doors for American Indian people to further their education in a field that is so vital to our people – public health.”
For more information about the NDSU Master of Public Health program, which also includes specializations in community health science, health promotion and management of infectious diseases, visitwww.ndsu.edu/publichealth.
For more information about NDSU’s Graduate School, visit www.ndsu.edu/gradschool.