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Native Health Initiative applies global health care concept to U.S. tribes

A Native Health Initiative orientation held in Santo Domingo Pueblo this year.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Since 2004, the Native Health Initiative has logged more than 60,000 volunteer hours, utilizing a sparse amount of funds and operating on the fuel of human compassion.

Founded in North Carolina, the NHI grew to include New Mexico in 2008. Both California and Minnesota recently joined the forces and are working at developing programs. Volunteers work in partnership with Native tribes and communities to help them reach their goals, in addition to providing health care students and professionals a five-week, non-paid in “loving service” internship.

Interns provide their transportation to and from the host community. In turn, the host provides shelter, food and board, and in some cases transportation to the volunteer site.

“We joke that the green stuff dries up, but that the human-to-human serving out of the goodness of heart is the limitless funding source,” said Anthony Fleg, founding member and family physician.

Instead of going to Native communities and trying to convince them to bring in their interns to work on a direct initiative, such as diabetes, they ask each Native community what programs they would like to start or improve. From there, they allow the tribe to set up their goals and they find the interns to help do the work.

It’s all a part of what Fleg deems as tackling global health within the United States. “To a lot of people in the health field they think this is a weird notion. Working here in our communities is a way of doing global health.”

In a twist, NHI has invited health care students from wealthy countries to the states to volunteer on reservations and in Native communities. These students typically fly off to poor, often third world countries. “They have been surprised to see that not everyone has access to health care, especially the first people of the land,” Fleg said.

He said the cost of operating the NHI’s summer internship program could have easily reached $95,000 this past year, when considering the time volunteers sacrificed and associated costs. But they managed to carry out both the New Mexico and North Carolina programs with a budget of about $2,000. “The communities aren’t just going to work with you just because you come with a purse or briefcase full of money.”

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NHI New Mexico has forged, or in the process of forging partnerships with numerous tribes, communities, schools, colleges and organizations. Fleg noted that the Santo Domingo Pueblo, usually closed to outsiders, welcomed them into their community. He credits their approach to asking what the tribe needed as the key to opening the door. Last summer interns assisted tribal members with planting gardens.

Fleg’s wife, Shannon, a health educator pursuing her master’s degree, developed the Keep Tobacco Sacred Campaign. NHI supports campaigns against tobacco companies that exploit tribal images and names to sell commercialized tobacco, in addition to anti-smoking education.

They currently support the Lumbee Tribe’s efforts to get the manufacturers of the Lumbee cigarette brand to eliminate the name, and they back up the Coharie Smoke-Free Hawks efforts to prevent the use of commercialized tobacco in their community. NHI’s “Breathe Tradition, Not Addiction” educational sessions teach Native youth about the traditional use of tobacco.


Participants of a Native Health Initiative Summer Retreat held in Cherokee, N.C. in 2006.

Brittany Simmons, a member of the state-recognized Waccamaw Siouan Tribe in North Carolina, began volunteering for NHI as a host intern in 2006. She now serves as the coordinator and plans the annual camp for youth ages 5 – 19, in July.

At the camp, Native youth learn how to merge tribal traditions with health. Camp coordinators invite local elders to impart knowledge and artists to share their skills, such as basketry and beading. The children learn how to fix healthy meals and don’t drink any soda during their weeklong stay. Simmons said that she recalled one student, in the 5 – 9 age group, who gave up soda completely and influenced his grandparents to do the same.

“We have an extremely high rate of diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and arthritis,” she said. “Those little changes help make a difference.”

Simmons spearheaded the debut of the Waccamaw Siouan Nation Youth Ambassadors. The 13 – 19 year olds spend a week at camp learning about tribal governmental practice. They are a part of the youth council, ages 13 – 24. “We moved into planning for our future that way,” she said.

Even though they manage to pull things off on a shoestring budget, Fleg would like to generate some grant money for the “Youth Leading the Way” project; the progam calls for selected youth to create and carry out projects that benefit their community.

Meanwhile, they are in the process of establishing NHI as a nonprofit organization. Fleg said that once the NHI concept of “loving service” has reached most of Indian country, they would like to see it spread to indigenous communities around the globe.