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Tribal advocates, health scientists address health disparities in indigenous communities

Public health concerns of Native Americans and environmental justice are the subjects of a two-day symposium at New Mexico State University.

Women wearing Native American headdress.
Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, will be the featured speaker at the RISE 2013 Health Disparities Symposium scheduled July 11-12, at NMSU's Corbett Center Auditorium.

The RISE 2013 Health Disparities Symposium, which is free and open to the public, begins with an opening reception at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, July 11, and continues at 11 a.m. Friday, July 12, at Corbett Center Auditorium. Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, will be the featured speaker at the event.

"The contamination or corporate usurpation of sacred/ceremonial sites, such as Mt. Shasta or the McCloud River, both sacred to the Winnemem Wintu, means the inability to practice life ways that are essential to the survival of a people," said Jennie Luna, assistant professor of women's studies and one of the speakers for the event.

The two-day event aims to highlight the needs of indigenous communities and is intended to promote interest in a cutting edge biomedical research approach known as "community-based participatory research." This type of research is based on collaborative partnerships between scientists and community members often with the goal of reducing health disparities. Community members actively participate in the full research process, from project onset to communication of results.

"The topics will include interdisciplinary and holistic view points that reflect the interconnectedness of all things, not only including time, but all living things on the planet as related to our health," said Anita Mihecoby, a RISE graduate student in counseling and educational psychology.

Thursday's event, "Leadership for Global and Health Equity," will begin with an opening reception at 3:30 p.m. Sisk will lecture at 4 p.m., followed by a screening of the film, "Dancing Salmon Home." This film features Sisk and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe's struggle for their rights to land, water and life ways.

"Indigenous peoples, especially children, endure more ill health than other populations," said Elba Serrano, Regents Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. "According to the World Health Organization, 'Children born into indigenous families often live in remote areas where governments do not invest in basic social services. Consequently, indigenous youth and children have limited or no access to health care, quality education, justice and participation.' The symposium will show how historical practices, environmental issues, and ignorance of Indigenous cultural and spiritual traditions have contributed to health disparities."

The second day's topic, "Indigenous Perspectives on Health Disparities," will kick off at 11 a.m., with an opening prayer led by Lisa Grayshield, associate professor of counseling and educational psychology. Keynote speaker Sisk will deliver her address, "Indigenous Global Health" at noon.

"Many indigenous nations face nuclear contamination, mining, power plants, dump sites and toxic waste from pesticides, deforestation, hydroelectric dam devastation and relocation," Luna said. "All of this impacts traditional medicines that grow in these areas and medical knowledge that needs to be protected."

Other event speakers include Joe Gladstone, assistant professor of public health sciences; Joe Graham, director for NMSU's Indian Resource Development Program; and Luna. Marilyn Begay, graduate student in counseling and educational psychology, will give the closing prayer.

Sisk has advocated for community, self-determination and the global indigenous women's movement for more than 30 years. An internationally renowned speaker, she has raised awareness of the poor human rights conditions of federally unrecognized tribes and unrepresented indigenous people around the world. She serves as the spiritual and environmental commissioner for Enlace Continental, an international network of indigenous women, and participates regularly in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Sisk received her bachelor's from Chico State University in 1975 and her teaching credential in 1976.

The event is sponsored by NMSU RISE, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Stan Fulton Endowed Chair Fund and the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology in the College of Education. NMSU RISE aims to diversify the ranks of research leaders by increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups who achieve a doctoral degree in a biomedical and/or biobehavioral discipline.

"An understanding of the root causes of health disparities among indigenous communities has the potential to enhance the health care services provided," Mihecoby said. "Health care systems are starting to recognize the mind-body connection, and it is important that those who serve native/indigenous peoples be able to recognize and better understand us as a people."

For more information contact Mihecoby at misscoby@nmsu.edu or the NMSU RISE Office at 575-646-7432.