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Cultural sensitivity training is crucial for health care providers

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LOS ANGELES – If tribes would teach their culture and history to their health care providers, everyone would benefit, said Pamela Iron, Laguna and Cherokee, director of the national project, “Training Our Providers in Cultural Sensitivity.”

Less than a third of tribes are teaching their health care providers about their history and culture, according to a national survey conducted in 2004. Many Indian health programs surveyed wanted to provide this kind of training but they said they didn’t have enough time, enough money or enough know-how.

“We tried to find model programs and learn how they overcame these obstacles,” Iron said. “Our advisory committee helped us identify six model programs that were willing to share their stories with others.”

“Tribes sharing with tribes” is the approach the TOPICS project has used. The six model programs are featured in a book, a video, a Web site and a national conference.

“Creating Space for Culture and History in Indian Health Care” is a conference that will be held on July 26 in Los Angeles. Leaders of the model programs will share how they developed their programs and answer questions.

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“We especially want to encourage tribal leaders and tribal council members to attend this conference,” Iron said. “They will get valuable ideas and it will inspire them to take action when they return home to their tribes.”

The six model programs have very different approaches, she said.

Before he was elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad Smith spent 10 years researching the history of the Cherokee Nation and developing a course to convey the information. Today, the tribe’s 2,000 employees are required to take the 40-hour Cherokee Nation History course.

United Indian Health Services in Arcata created an environment for health care that reflects the local culture through arts and crafts and a land reclamation project that has transformed 40 acres into walking trails with indigenous plants and community gardens. UIHS has raised $6 million from foundations and worked for 10 years to create this “expression of health for American Indians.”

The other model programs featured in the TOPICS project are the Arctic Slope Native Association, American Indian Health and Family Services of Southeastern Michigan Inc., the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority and the California Rural Indian Health Board.

For more information about the TOPICS project and the conference, visit