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After an eight-year push from health professionals, the Indigenous health PhD program at the University of North Dakota received the greenlight, making the program the first of its kind in North Dakota and the United States. It’s also a program that could assist tribes in public health emergencies like COVID-19.

“There is a shortage of American Indian professionals in Indigenous health,” said Donald Warne, associate dean and director of Indians Into Medicine. He said there is a need for this type of program.

This doctoral program gives post-master students an opportunity to learn about Indigenous health starting this summer. It provides students with knowledge and skills in administration, methodology, evaluation and policy, Warne said. Unlike other programs, it offers a deeper dive into the studies of Indigenous people here and around the world.

Five professors with 100 years of Indigenous health knowledge collectively lead the program: Dr. Ursula Running Bear, Sicangu Lakota; Dr. Melanie Nadeau, Ojibwe; Dr. Donald Warne, Oglala Lakota; Dr. Siobhan Wescott, Athabascan; and Dr. Nicole Redvers, Dene’ First Nation.

Each of the professors have a different speciality in public health, clinicals, epidemiology, health policy and naturopathy. Additional faculty include those in population health, family & community medicine and Indigenous health scholars at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Five Indigenous health professionals introduce a new program at University of North Dakota. (L to R): Dr. Running Bear, Dr. Nadeau, Dr. Warne, Dr. Wescott, Dr. Redvers. (Photo courtesy of the University of North Dakota)

“The program is the only Indigenous health PhD program in the world with an exclusive focus on public health,” said Wescott who is an Indians Into Medicine professor at the university. There are similar PhD programs that are multidisciplinary, but are not exclusive in public health and there are undergraduate Indigenous health programs in the country and around the world, but they do not have a PhD level program, explained Wescott.


Like public health programs, the Indigenous health program also includes a system of skill sets that are helpful in responding to public health situations like the COVID-19, which just this morning became declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, Wescott said.

“We give you tools to understand how to access a situation, for instance if you do not agree with how a certain country is handling that for a tribe,” she said. “We help you have the tools to argue for what the right management should be.”

As far as COVID-19, everybody is doing the best that they can, she said. Some places are up against the difficulty of getting tests, which is really a nationwide problem.

A program like this can guide you on how we can work around that, administratively, to manage potential cases in the community, but also, not giving into panic, but having the tools to logically work through the next step of protecting ourselves and the community, she said.

“I don’t think anyone in the country is fully prepared for the pandemic. That also certainly applies to tribes,” Wescott said. “I also think that we are resilient and will figure things out.”

Introducing the program

Since announcing the program, there have been over 300 inquiries asking about the new program and application details. The program allows for only 12 spots, but this hasn’t stopped over 40 applicants from all over the country and the world from applying before the May deadline. There have been applicants and inquiries from Norway, Australia and even New Zealand, Warne said.

Indians Into Medicine at the university has graduated 244 American Indian and Alaska Native physicians at the University of North Dakota. It has been the most successful Indigenous medical training program internationally and in history, said in a university press release.

The new Indigenous health program, starting this summer, will be linked to the Indians Into Medicine and master of public health programs.

“This program opens the idea of both western and Indigenous practices,” said Nicole Redvers who is an Indians Into Medicine professor. Western practices many times will limit Indigenous health practices due to administration policies and structural issues; this program will include both practices, she said.

Dr. Donald Warne, Oglala Lakota, speaking with a student. (Photo courtesy of the University of North Dakota)

Redvers sees the Indigenous health program as Mi'kmaw elder Albert Marshall’s guiding principle of two-eyed seeing, Etuaptmumk. The saying refers to using one eye to see the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and using the other eye to see the strengths of western knowledge. Elder Marshall believed using both the Indigenous eye and non-Indigenous eye can lead to powerful collaborations.

Implementing the program

Graduates can seek a career as health researchers, policy analysts, program administrators, public health officers, the course curriculum stated. Additional opportunities include, graduates to be uniquely picked to join faculty at university and tribal colleges in public health, Indigenous studies and other disciplines.

“Anyone with a master’s or PhD in public health can work in Indian Country, but the training and the specific attention to Indigenous issues in our program makes you far more marketable in a wide variety of positions in Indian Country,” Wescott said.

These positions could range from being a health director or running a tobacco cessation program, pretty much the gamut of anything that can help make Native people healthier, she said.

Victoria O’Keefe, Cherokee and Seminole Nations of Oklahoma, associate director and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health commends the University of North Dakota for developing this program.

“This type of program will undoubtedly attract so many Indigenous scholars,” she said.

It is significant because training future Indigenous health leaders has the ability to positively transform health systems for American Indians and Alaskan Natives whether that’s Indian Health Service, tribal and Indian healthcare systems as well as those that go into American Indian and Alaskan Native health policy and Indigenous health research, O’Keefe said.

“All of those can help impact the health and well being of our communities,” she said.

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Quindrea Yazzie, Navajo, is a digital reporter at Indian Country Today’s Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @quindreayazzie or email her at