Reviving a National Association for Native Nurses and Students

Over its decades of existence, the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association has evolved — but it hasn’t been a steady upswing.

Over its decades of existence, the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association (NANAINA) has evolved — but it hasn’t been a steady upswing. Its progress chart looks more like an active heartbeat that flatlined and is now being shocked back to life.

“With changes in leadership, it’s fluctuated,” said Dr. Misty Wilkie, NANAINA’s president since summer 2015. “When I was a [NANAINA] member as a graduate student in the early 2000s, it was a very strong organization that had a lot of members.”

NANAINA currently counts about 40 members. It previously claimed a few hundred. Across the country, there are “thousands” of American Indian and Alaska Native nurses among the 3.6 million nurses nationwide who comprise the largest sector of the health profession.


Wilkie is urging Native nurses, educators, students and practitioners who work in Native health care to renew their NANAINA memberships and to encourage their friends and co-workers to join the association. “We need a strong membership to make us successful again,” she said.

NANAINA has been around in various capacities, and under a different organization name, since the mid-1980s. The nonprofit was born with its current title in 1993 in North Dakota. Its primary purpose is to unite and support American Indian and Alaska Native nurses and students.

Wilkie’s involvement with NANAINA stretches back nearly two decades. While a nursing student, the association served as a great source of inspiration and support to her. “To me, it was an opportunity to connect with nurse-leaders whom I aspired to be. They’d earned their PhDs, they were conducting research, they were the heads of major government organizations,” said Wilkie, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota.

“To be able to interact with these nurses was really pivotal and integral for me as a graduate student — to be able to see myself in that position someday,” she added.

Wilkie earned her associate degree in nursing in 1997 (Hibbing Community College), her bachelor of science in nursing in 2001 (Bemidji State University), her master of science in nursing in 2003 (University of North Dakota), and her PhD in 2009 (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities). She started working in higher education in 2005, and currently serves as an assistant professor at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota.

In her relatively new role at NANAINA, she is dedicated to reviving the organization that she valued so dearly during her professional development. Wilkie envisions NANAINA as an association that contributes to federal policies and helps to improve health care for Native people and communities. She sees NANAINA as a tool to connect and engage nurses in Indian country.

“We need to make it known to people that we are reorganizing and rebuilding our organization, and [to do that] we need more members,” she emphasized.


National Conference

After a five-year hiatus from convening as an association, NANAINA is hosting a national conference this summer, slated for June 16-17, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In the early 2000s, NANAINA conferences typically attracted between 100-150 participants. Wilkie is aiming to draw at least a hundred attendees this year. The conference is dedicated in honor of the late Dr. Roxanne Struthers, a vital, longtime member of NANAINA who made significant contributions to nursing and American Indian people. “She was a leader, an educator, a researcher, and a mentor — for me as well as others,” Wilkie said.

NANAINA has confirmed two keynote speakers for the conference: Dr. Margaret Moss, an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, who recently published the first text book on American Indian health and nursing, and Ursula Knoki-Wilson, Navajo, community relations liaison officer at Indian Health Service in Chinle, Arizona.

After NANAINA successfully reestablishes its conference, Wilkie anticipates reactivating the organization’s former core offerings, like providing student scholarships.

“I really see us making our conference an annual event that brings nurses and educators and students from around the country together each year, so that it’s something they look forward to,” Wilkie said. “Another piece of the conference is having participants bring a donated item of art or jewelry for a silent auction.” All proceeds from the silent auction will go toward NANAINA’s student scholarship fund.

Joining NANAINA is simple. A one-page membership application requests background and degree information, as well as tribal affiliation. “Our membership fees are moderate and reasonable, I think,” Wilkie said. Full membership, available to enrolled tribal members, costs $75 annually. Non-Natives who work with American Indian communities can become associate members for $50.

Among the advantages of membership is inclusion in a network with the power to wield major and positive influence in the Native health arena. “That’s another benefit our members can have – to have input and be a part of a national effort to improve the health outcomes of our people and our communities,” Wilkie said.

In that vein, NANAINA is collaborating with AARP Foundation, AARP, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on their Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, which mobilizes nurses, health providers, consumers, educators, and businesses to strengthen nursing across multiple fronts.

Conference Call for Abstracts

NANAINA has issued a call for abstracts due February 13 for podium or poster presentation opportunities at its national conference. The possibilities for abstract topics vary widely. They could be related to mental health and addiction, suicide awareness, historical trauma, or Native education — such as how to improve the likelihood of an American Indian student succeeding in nursing school. “We want the topics to be relatable to any nurse or educator who works with American Indian students, communities or individuals,” Wilkie said.

NANAINA is also looking for conference sponsors. In addition to helping support the conference financially as the organization works toward re-establishing itself, sponsors will be promoted through announcements of gratitude, and potentially through published materials in branded conference tote bags, among other avenues. Interested sponsors should contact Dr. Wilkie at mwilkie@bemidjistate.edu.

For NANAINA, its comeback is gaining momentum. “It’s going to take increasing membership and letting people know that we’re back and we’re re-organizing and rebuilding, and that we have a vision of where we want this organization to grow, and how we want it to contribute to the health and well-being of our people,” Wilkie said.

This story was originally published February 2, 2017.