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Champion of Native American public health lauded

BERKELEY, Calif. – In recognition of distinguished service in public health, the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health bestowed this year’s prestigious Alumnus of the Year award to Michael E. Bird, a Santa Domingo-San Juan Pueblo Indian and the first Native American so honored. For Bird, with more than 25 years in public health service, that’s not his only first.

In 2001 and 2002, he was the first, and so far only, Native American president of the 50,000-member American Public Health Association, an internationally respected organization that has been influencing policies and setting priorities since 1872.

He served as executive director of the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center from 2001 to 2005, during which he increased and strengthened the provision of technical assistance in HIV prevention programs for Natives. Among his many awards, he received the Minority Congressional Caucuses Healthcare Hero Award in 2003 and the Washington, D.C.-based Spirit of Public Health Award in 2007.

Bird was with the IHS for more than 20 years, from 1977 to 2000, yet he is a renegade, of sorts. “I saw the APHA presidency as a real opportunity to promote our agenda to better meet the needs of Indian peoples.” But as it became clear to him that he wasn’t going to have the support of the IHS to fulfill that role, “I left and didn’t look back.”

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He says professionally it was the best thing for him to step out and try something new. “I’ve had a lot more opportunities and done more and interesting things and learned skills I wouldn’t have developed.” He gained opportunities to work with Canadian, Australian and New Zealand indigenous peoples. During his presidency, he devoted the 2002 issue of the American Journal of Public Health to indigenous health.

In introducing his award, the U.C. Berkeley School of Public Health called him a “champion of Native American health.” What was disheartening of the alumni awards ceremony – which also featured commencement speaker Dr. Julie Gerberding, former Centers for Disease Control director – “is that of those 300 students graduating in the field of public health, I didn’t meet any who were Native American.”

He has long advocated generating more scholarship funds to encourage Natives to enter the field, to address the disparities in indigenous health. In 2001, the National Association of County and City Health Officials recognized his efforts and established the Michael E. Bird Scholarship. But he says “the Bush administration cut everything. The needs of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians just get overlooked, yet we have some of the worst disparities.”

He sees a real opportunity with Dr. Yvette Roubideaux as head of the IHS. “She’s coming from outside of the system. She’s bringing her own vision and her own expectations to the IHS. You need somebody who’s going to look at things with a new set of eyes; the challenge though, is that it’s a bureaucratic system – they don’t change overnight and they don’t change easily.”