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A need to connect

The Native Research Network was started with one goal in mind – to foster a support system for Native researchers who are often isolated at universities across the nation.

Since 1997, the organization has grown from 16 members to more than 250. Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, IHS director, was instrumental in its formation.

Roubideaux, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said the concept was thrown around for years at medical conferences. When her career focus shifted from primary care provider to researcher, the need for support from Native colleagues became paramount.

The Harvard graduate served as an IHS physician from 1992 – 96, and began transitioning to the research and education field after earning a master’s degree in Public Health in 1997. Most of her research has focused on diabetes.

 

The organization started to take shape when she met a group of Native researchers interested in starting a support network. She stayed in contact with the group via e-mail, and they would meet and brainstorm at conferences. Eventually, this core group became the American Indian-Alaska Native Research Network.

In 2000, the organization changed its name to reach out to would-be members from Canada’s First Nations and Native Hawaiians.

“It was perfect timing because we had a critical mass of researchers, and a critical mass of people willing to help develop it, and people willing and wanting to be a part of it,” Roubideaux said.

She was instrumental in securing funds for the nonprofit; her participation in the Native Elder Resource Center Native Investigator Program at the University of Colorado gave her the training necessary to tap grants from the National Institutes of Health.

“During my studies at Harvard I realized that people who were getting funding were the people who had the data. At Indian Health Services we didn’t have a lot of the data available to describe the health disparities and what solutions would be most effective.”

From her bird’s-eye view as IHS director, she would like to see more research done on the multitude of medical-based programs available to patients that doctors and advocates claim to be effective, and if these programs improve the overall health of patients.

Given her current responsibilities, and after serving on the board in just about every capacity, Roubideaux is now a member-at-large. Aside from enjoying the multitude of networking opportunities available to her through the NRN, mentoring budding researchers has been one of her most rewarding experiences.

One of those researchers is NRN co-chair Kelly Gonzales, a Ph.D. candidate in Public Health at Oregon State University. Gonzales credits the organization, and the mentorship of Roubideaux and other experienced researchers, for helping her get through the last six years of her studies.

A major portion of her research focuses on discrimination in the Indian health care systems and how it affects access to medical care and health outcomes. Additionally, she is researching the effectiveness of health literature available to Native communities, which added another year to her program.

Gonzales, Cherokee, is the first generation to go to college in her family, and hand wrote her acceptance letter. While at college, her mother begged her to return home. Despite feeling the pressure, she wanted to enter a career that would benefit Native communities.

Since entering the doctoral program, she has had two children, and finds support from other members trying to juggle family and school. “The network has been an amazing resource. For me, a lot of it has been about gaining confidence.”

Gonzales’ tenure as co-chair began at the 21st Annual National Native Research Conference. She and co-chair Maile Taualii will lead until August 2010.

The structure of the organization was arranged so two chairs serve together for three years.

Members can further their involvement by joining subcommittees. Dean Seneca officially joined the NRN in 2006, and aside from serving as organization chair, he has also served as chair of the bylaws subcommittee and the advocacy and collaborations subcommittee.

Seneca, a citizen of the Seneca Nation, and senior advisor for the Portfolio Management Program at the Office of the Chief of Public Health PracticeCenters for Disease Control and Prevention, said one of his most rewarding experiences was helping build structure in the organization by creating bylaws. “I cannot take credit for this alone. I worked with a very dynamic group led by former chairs Delight Satter and Dr. Doris Cook.”

As for his views on research, he would like to see researchers delve into the affects gaming has on tribal communities, along with more research on education and the environment. “I really believe we need better research on issues related to social determinants of health. This is well researched with other populations, but not so much with the Native population.”

In a move to address research methods in Indian country, past co-chair Teshia Arambula Solomon, has been working on editing the book, “Conducting Research in Native Communities,” a collaboration of articles written by Native researchers. It features topics such as the socio-political history of tribes, research protocol in Indian country, successful research projects and research gone wrong.

“The movement right now is for tribes to really take power and to create their own research agenda on what things they would like to have studied so research actually comes back to benefit the community.”

The book has the potential to be used in college courses, she said, with a release date slated for winter 2010. Solomon, Choctaw, is the co-director of the Native American Research and Training Center and associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Arizona.

She encourages researchers from all professions, even mathematicians and artists, to join the NRN. “It comes from the philosophy of Native people that health is a method to every element of life. Balance in all things is what makes you healthy, and everything is connected to health.”

Former co-chair Alison Ball is one of those members outside the medical and scientific research realm. She serves as the co-director of the Sapsik’wala’ Project for the Department of Education Studies at the University of Oregon. The master’s degree program prepares Native students to teach children in tribal communities.

Ball, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, joined the NRN with her husband, Tom Ball, in 1997.

She said the 11-member board focuses on planning its annual conference in August, held the past two years in Portland. During her tenure, Ball contributed to revamping the organization’s strategic plan for the next five years.

“Being on the board has been well worthwhile and it’s a lot of volunteer work. It’s been nice to provide leadership opportunities, and to help put together a conference agenda, and find out what other Native researchers are doing out in the field.”

The NRN has hosted the conference in collaboration with IHS since 2005. Plans and location for next year’s conference are pending.

As an organization, members have collaborated on one research project, a literature review on traditional medicine for the IHS. Current funding to support NRN comes from the Office of Minority Health, Department of Health and Human Services, and annual membership dues.

Gonzales encourages Native high school and undergraduate students interested in a career in research of any kind to join the NRN. “It allows us to focus on providing opportunities to Native students, and we have different ways that students can gain experience.”