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Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health

Melissa Walls, PhD, Bois Forte and Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe, has been appointed Director of the Great Lakes Hub for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health and associate professor of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Center’s new hub, based in Duluth, Minnesota, will build upon existing partnerships with hundreds of tribal members across 11 Ojibwe Bands. This collaboration will advance leading-edge research projects focusing on the etiology and consequences of diabetes, substance use, mental disorders, and physical health issues — as well as opportunities to prevent these and other health challenges.

Dr. Walls will be adapting Together on Diabetes, a family-centered diabetes prevention and management program developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in partnership with Southwestern Native American communities. Together on Diabetes was found to decrease body mass index and high blood pressure in American Indian adolescents diagnosed or at risk for type 2 diabetes. Dr. Walls will be recruiting adults with diabetes and their adolescent children from five Ojibwe communities, seeking to help adults manage their diabetes and prevent the disease in their children.

“It’s hard to change the behavior of individuals,” said Dr. Walls, “you can have a bigger impact if you get family norms to change.”

Translating research outcomes to policy to achieve greater impact is an explicit goal of her team’s efforts.

“Research as an academic exercise won’t fly with our communities — our goal is to impact policies and programs with the findings we generate,” said Dr. Walls.

Maawaji' idi-oog Mino-ayaawin (Gathering for Health) research team

Maawaji' idi-oog Mino-ayaawin (Gathering for Health) research team.

After her Gathering for Health research found an association between mental and emotional health issues and diabetes-related health problems, Dr. Walls’s team worked with tribal clinics to implement the findings into a policy to screen diabetes patients for depression and refer them to mental health care.

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To address the catastrophic nutritional transition from land-based, traditional foods to government-sponsored commodities that Indigenous communities have suffered over the past half century, Dr. Walls’s projects often integrate traditional stories about the land, water, and animals, and the planting and gathering of cultural foods like wild rice.

“The headlines are always ‘we’re sick, drunk, and dying young,’" said Dr. Walls. “We are rewriting the story to show that our communities have solutions to achieve health equity."

Anishinaabe Giigewin Miikana (Healing Pathways) research team

Anishinaabe Giigewin Miikana (Healing Pathways) research team.

Dr. Walls has also investigated social determinants and risk and protective factors around a number of behavioral health issues such as anxiety, suicide, intimate partner violence, and substance use through Healing Pathways, a longitudinal research cohort established in 2002 that follows over 700 American Indian and First Nations youth and their families living in the northern Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada.

“We are thrilled to open a Great Lakes Hub to be directed by Melissa where she has built strong and effective partnerships with local tribal communities,” said Allison Barlow, PhD, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. “In collaboration with Indigenous families and tribal leaders, Dr. Walls is making ground-up discoveries to reclaim well-being for the Indigenous peoples of North America — and her approach will generate findings to advance the entire field of prevention science.”

Dr. Walls earned her PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health. She was recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as an Interdisciplinary Research Leader in 2017 and comes to the Bloomberg School from the Department of Biobehavioral Health and Population Sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth School of Medicine, where she was an Associate Professor.

Dr. Walls is also deeply connected to the tribal lands straddling Minnesota and Ontario where her Anishinaabe family has lived for six generations. She participates in an Indigenous women’s running group and in powwows as a jingle dancer.

About the Johns Hopkins Center For American Indian Health

The Center for American Indian Health works in partnership with tribal communities to design public health programs that raise the health status, self-sufficiency, and health leadership of Native Americans to the highest possible level.

We are an independent center within the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of International Health with offices in Arizona, New Mexico, and Minnesota. With almost four decades of collaboration, beginning with Southwestern tribes, our programs now reach more than 125 tribal communities across 20 states. These partnerships have achieved landmark public health breakthroughs credited with saving over 60 million children’s lives worldwide.