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Enhancing Tribal Sovereignty Over Medical Research in Indian Country

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The Collaborative Research Center for American Indian Health's 2nd Annual Summit gets underway this week in Bemidji, Minn.

The theme this year is "Making Relatives for Community-Based Research," in keeping with the center's commitment to fostering interdisciplinary research into American Indian health issues in partnership with tribes in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.

The center was established in 2012 by Sanford Research and the University of South Dakota with a grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Four tribal partners – the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians – have come on board and the center is in the process of selecting a fifth tribal partner from the many that have expressed interest, says Amy Elliott, director and senior scientist at the Sanford Research Center for Health Outcomes Prevention Research.

Elliott stresses that the center is not interested in reinventing the wheel but in using past successes and lessons to help tribes, as sovereign nations, build the infrastructure they need to propose, direct and oversee the medical research that involves their members.

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Keynote Speaker: Spero Manson, PhD, distinguished professor of public health and psychiatry director for the Centers for American Indian Alaska Native Health; associate dean for research at the University of Colorado

"There are dollars in the NIH funding for the tribes to hire personnel to help them build their own research infrastructure. Then they can use core resources from the collaborative research center. For example, if they want to start their own regulatory review board for research we have a regulatory knowledge core that helps with that; if they have a research project they want to do we have a methodology core that can help with statistics; if they have data and they would like to work with it for different questions, we have folks that can help with that."

Jacque Gray, a Choctaw-Cherokee descendent will present a paper at the summit on how indigenous research is carried out in New Zealand, where 15 percent of the population is indigenous and the Maori have their own political party. While many of the health issues are the same as they are here, she says, "some of the primary books about doing indigenous research are written by Maori researchers. By contrast, the U.S. is just now getting a cadre of Native researchers into the field." One of the goals of the center is to facilitate the development of more indigenous researchers here.

A year and a half along, the center is conducting three major longitudinal studies on pediatric asthma, living kidney donation education and utilization of emergency room services by pediatric patients as well as funding a number of small pilot projects, which have included a study of pre-natal alcohol exposure, an investigation into using mindfulness to reduce risky behaviors among Native American youth, a look at the care and quality of life for American Indian women with cervical cancer and a study of racial microaggressions in American Indian healthcare. Microaggressions are brief and virtually unnoticed interactions between people of different races or ethnicities that convey hostile or derogatory thoughts and feelings. These types of communications could affect health outcomes by impacting prescription compliance, for example, and they could potentially be modified in order to improve delivery of health care services, explains Elliott.

This summit is an opportunity for these and other American Indian researchers to talk about their work, explore areas for collaboration and build the expertise that will give tribes sovereignty over medical research in Indian Country.