National Indian Health Board
The National Indian Health Board (NIHB) opened its annual National Tribal Public Health Summit with messages from federal agency partners, Tribal leaders and experts on Tribal public health. The annual Summit is the premier public health event dedicated to public health practice, innovation, policy and advocacy in Indian Country. Messages of resiliency and strength resonated throughout the opening plenary speakers’ words, and there was also an acknowledgement of the profound trauma that COVID-19 was left behind as it moved through Tribal communities.
“This year’s Summit theme is Indigenous Resilience in Tribal Public Health Practice. We chose that because our Tribal Nations are resilient, and we wanted to recognize the leadership and innovation that came out of Indian Country during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said National Indian Health Board Chairman William Smith who is also the Vice President of the Valdez Native Tribe of Alaska and a Vietnam veteran. “National Indian Health Board is thankful to our federal partners for including Tribes in the COVID-19 response and recovery especially because Tribal Nations were largely left behind during the development of the nation’s public health infrastructure. The pandemic reaffirmed that Tribes are resilient and adaptive, but it has also emphasized the trauma that still lives among American Indian and Alaska Native people.”
Dr. Donald Warne, Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as well as the Director of the Indians Into Medicine (INMED) and Public Health Programs at the University of North Dakota, reiterated that Tribal citizens experience past traumas from boarding school experiences, and adverse childhood and adulthood experiences. However, COVID-19 has brought into Tribal communities even more trauma and grief. Dr. Warne touched on the holistic approach to healing and overcoming trauma with support from culture, ceremony and family ties.
National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp also mentioned the trauma impact of COVID-19 and praised the resiliency of Tribes. “It was quite something to see Tribal leaders use their inherent sovereignty to come together, and where our average citizens stepped up to volunteer. Every one of us has a powerful narrative.”
Officials from the Indian Health Service (IHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House COVID-19 Task Force, as well as the Surgeon General all shared messages about the need to forge strong and lasting partnerships with Tribes during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“The Indian Health Service is excited to once again join the National Indian Health Board’s annual Tribal Public Health Summit, “said Elizabeth Fowler, Acting Director, Indian Health Service. “This year’s theme ‘Indigenous Resilience in Tribal Public Health Practice’ is fitting, as the IHS continues to respond to the current public health crisis. We are grateful for our partnership with the National Indian Health Board as we work to strengthen our response and recovery efforts and ensure we are providing timely access to vaccines within our Tribal and urban communities.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy shared via a video message that the mental and behavioral health impacts of COVID-19 will not be overlooked by the healthcare system, noting that “you are not broken if you struggle with your mental health, and you are not morally deficient if you are living with a substance use disorder.”
In a video message, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky updated Tribes on the agency’s efforts to bring more relief to Tribal communities across the country, including deploying 289 staff to Indian Country to support local Tribal COVID response strategies such as sanitation and hygiene support, contact tracing and surveillance data collection and analysis. She also restated that the CDC acknowledged that racism is a fundamental driver of health inequities in the United States.
National Indian Health Board Vice Chairman and Lummi Nation Councilman Nickolaus Lewis moderated a panel of Tribal leaders that focused on the challenges of COVID-19 and the ways Tribes have persevered and protected their citizens and communities. Vice Chairman Lewis said, “The pandemic has shown that our families and communities are stronger together, and during stay-at-home orders we re-learned how to reconnect with our loved ones and culture.”
White Mountain Apache Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, Pueblo of Zia Governor Jerome Lucero and Lummi Nation Chairman Lawrence Solomon each shared stories of how their Tribes weathered the challenges, turned to their respective cultures and mounted their own specific responses reflective of each of their communities’ needs. Some common themes were that without a national plan, Tribes had to fend for themselves at the onset of the pandemic; staffing and contact tracing are some of the biggest challenges; and losing elders and keepers of language and culture has had a profound and heartbreaking impact on their communities.
“The biggest challenge is figuring out how to practice our traditional customs and ceremonies in a safe manner. We are always feasting and dancing and praying. It hurts me that we can’t get into that again quite yet,” said Governor Lucero.
Lummi Chairman Solomon said they declared a public health emergency ahead of the United States and began COVID-19 testing and instituted quarantine on March 5 . Putting all that together was very challenging, but it was needed to protect our people and community.”
Chairwoman Lee-Gatewood shared that the White Mountain Apache Tribe stands ready to coordinate with other Tribes, Tribal organizations and federal agencies to ensure all American Indians and Alaska Natives are protected from COVID-19 and have an opportunity to heal their physical, mental and spiritual beings.
Two former National Indian Health Board Youth Health Policy Fellows, Tamee Livermont from the Oglala Lakota Nation and Alec Calac from the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, shared their insights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their generations are continuing to advocate for good health and wellness.
Livermont, who joined the Great Plains Tribal Leaders’ Health Board at the beginning of the pandemic, said she is most interested in data sovereignty and protecting data collected from American Indians and Alaska Natives. Calac, a medical and PhD student, is focused on health from a global perspective and ways to use social media to influence good health outcomes in Tribal communities.
“Our Native youth are impressive, and I am confident that they will lead our Tribal Nations into the future in a good way,” said National Indian Health Board Vice Chairman Lewis.
National Indian Health Board National Tribal Public Health Summit continues Wednesday and Thursday, April 28 and 29. View the Summit agenda at: https://tphs2021.us2.pathable.com/.
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About the National Indian Health Board
Founded in 1972, National Indian Health Board is a 501(c) 3 not for profit, charitable organization providing health care advocacy services, facilitating Tribal budget consultation and providing timely information, and other services to all Tribal governments. National Indian Health Board also conducts research, provides policy analysis, program assessment and development, national and regional meeting planning, training, technical assistance, program and project management. National Indian Health Board presents the Tribal perspective while monitoring, reporting on and responding to federal legislation and regulations. It also serves as conduit to open opportunities for the advancement of American Indian and Alaska Native health care with other national and international organizations, foundations corporations and others in its quest to build support for, and advance, Indian health care issues.