In another world-first, UND establishes a standalone Department of Indigenous Health.
“What’s being built here is unprecedented,” explained Don Warne. “Nothing like this exists in the world.”
While such a statement, delivered with complete sincerity, might sound exaggerated, it’s one hundred percent true.
Fresh off the establishment of the world’s first doctoral program in Indigenous Health at UND, which began at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) in 2020, Warne, the director of the School’s public health and Indians into Medicine (INMED) programs, was speaking of another world-first: the School’s brand-new Department of Indigenous Health.
“We’ve had a longstanding history of Indigenous programs at UND through INMED,” continued Warne. “Adding a specific Indigenous department in a medical school gives us the opportunity to promote more synergy across research, education, service, and other training opportunities that focus in Indigenous health and health equity. It creates a unique platform to expand the innovative work we’re already doing, and to start more innovative programs.”
The formation of such a department became necessary, Warne said, as not only INMED and the doctoral program but additional programs dedicated to Indigenous health continue to sprout at UND. Such programs include the recently announced Indigenous Trauma & Resilience Research Center, the result of a five-year, $10 million award from the National Institutes of Health, and the School’s new practice-based research network (PBRN) to be known as the American Indian Collaborative Research Network (AICoRN).
A PBRN is, in effect, a network of health providers in a region who want to do clinical research in a focused way. These clinicians provide the “laboratory” – the clinics – for studying broad populations of patients in community-based settings.
According to Dr. Allison Kelliher, the inaugural director of the UND-based AICoRN, although PBRNs are not a new concept nationally, there were no such research networks representing the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming.
“[AICoRN] will be truly community-based, whether community-based clinics or participation with the American Indian/Alaska Native [AI/AN] communities,” added Kelliher, a family medicine physician from Nome, Alaska, who is also board certified integrative and holistic medicine. “This gives AICoRN its unique niche. We’re on the cutting edge of addressing health disparities and elevating Indigenous voices, which is much needed. This will require partnership with as many tribal stakeholders as are interested, be they tribal, urban, or Indian Health Service-based settings across our four states, in addition to collaborating internationally.”
As Kelliher noted, not only clinical but laboratory-based research often takes “a couple of decades,” historically speaking, to translate into real-time therapies for patients. But PBRNs – particularly if combined with the School’s emphasis on “translational” studies and when part of a Department of Indigenous Health – can help reduce that lag time considerably.
“Say someone is interested in water quality or resilience,” Kelliher explains. “Working with communities and providers to get those researchers connected to our PBRN and also utilize UND resources for statistics or research design can help identify problems in the community and develop research questions. Collaborating with our communities, particularly from the Indigenous perspective, will allow us to obtain meaningful information that can influence our practice and health today or tomorrow—not 20 years from now.”
Such information gathering is already underway at UND. Kelliher’s colleague Dr. Nicole Redvers, a member of the Deninu K’ue First Nation from the Northwest Territories, Canada, is directing the School’s first clinical trial via the Indigenous Trauma & Resilience Research Center. The trial is being conducted in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA) and the federally funded Human Nutrition & Research Center (HNRC) in Grand Forks.
“Indigenous communities deserve representation not only in research as leaders and participants, but also in the development of relevant research questions that amplify community strengths while getting to the heart of what matters most in communities,” added Redvers, whose trial will involve chokeberries. “I am humbled and proud of the support we’ve seen from the School, our partners, and faculty mentors at UND that have enabled me to lead the first clinical trial hosted at the SMHS. I am even more proud that this clinical trial will be investigating a traditional Indigenous food with a long history of use for healing in Indigenous communities.”
So, why UND?
As a member of the Koyukon Athabascan tribe from the Middle Yukon region of Alaska, Kelliher follows Redvers in being the second faculty that Warne has recruited to UND in 24 months from the higher latitudes of North America.
All of which begs the question: why UND?
“Because North Dakota has excellent Indigenous scholars!” smiled Kelliher in a matter-of-fact sort of way. “The key to me here is excellent cohorts, mentors, and mentees. The additional piece is that Grand Forks is a right-sized community with the right amount of enthusiasm and support to actually translate knowledge into action and affect outcomes.”
UND’s reputation is “renowned nationwide” for being a center for excellence and a model for training future physicians, particularly those who are Indigenous, said Kelliher.
“I’m a board member of the Association of American Indian Physicians, and I’ve worked with Dr. Warne at the traditional Indian medicine cross-cultural workshops, that the AAIP holds each April, for years,” she said. “At that time I was really impressed with his scholastic approach to traditional medicine and his ability to explain and validate sacred things that can sometimes be difficult for our communities to translate into academics. It’s that kind of work by Drs. Redvers and Warne in particular that impressed me most.”
Redvers agreed, noting that she had just passed the two-year anniversary of being in the U.S.
“It was definitely a large move for my family and me from northern Canada, but the prospect of being a part of the first Indigenous Health Ph.D. program, and supporting the efforts in Indigenous health widely, were a large draw for me,” she added. “It’s one thing for an institution to say they support Indigenous health initiatives and scholarship and another to act and open those doors for faculty and students. We have seen UND walk the walk on these commitments to diversity here at the SMHS, and I am very proud to see the Department of Indigenous Health take shape.”
All of which makes what’s shaping up at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences unprecedented indeed.
“We need to build the evidence base of culturally relevant interventions to improve health outcomes, which can lead to more resources for our communities to implement effective health programs,” concluded Warne, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe in Pine Ridge, S.D. “The other focus of this program will be to provide research mentorship to early career faculty and to establish them as independent investigators. This will lead to ripple effects in terms of additional grants, studies, resources, and programs through UND.”