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American Indian public health center established at NDSU: New facility aimed to reduce health disparity

FARGO — American Indians in North Dakota are twice as likely to develop diabetes and six times more likely to die of the preventable illness than the general population.

A new center at North Dakota State University aims to reduce health disparities like those through education, research and policy guidance.

Officials on Wednesday announced the establishment of the American Indian Public Health Resource Center, which will serve American Indian communities in North Dakota and the Upper Midwest.

The initiative includes a new master’s of public health program with an emphasis on Native American health, which NDSU describes as the first of its kind in the nation.

The center and master’s in public health program are headed by Dr. Donald Warne, who is from Kyle, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust awarded a three-year grant of $1.4 million, matched by a contribution of more than $720,000 from the North Dakota Higher Education Challenge Fund.

“By putting these together, we’re going to be able to accomplish something never before possible,” said NDSU President Dean Bresciani.

As a result of many gaping health disparities, the average age of death for American Indians in North Dakota is 54.7 years, compared to 75.7 years for the general population.

“Isn’t that remarkable?” Warne said. “That is in many ways Third World health conditions.”

The new center will have a staff of 10, including program directors for four programs that will work to improve American Indian health and decrease mortality rates that greatly exceed the general population.

Those programs include:

- Public health services and programming, including health promotion and disease prevention. Assistance will include strategic public health planning and grant writing support.

- Public health research, with tribes determining research priorities, a departure from researchers setting the agenda.

- Public health education to expand the American Indian public health workforce. Steps include the master of public health program with an emphasis on American Indian health and development of education materials.

- Public health policy initiatives in cooperation with tribes to establish new policies, often in partnership with other public health agencies.

Indian reservations in the Dakotas are very rural, with high poverty rates, increasing the challenges in creating an environment to make it easier for people to adopt healthy lifestyle steps.

One emphasis will be to promote traditional native foods that offer health benefits, including buffalo meat, low-sugar corn varieties and varieties of beans that can help reduce blood pressure, Warne said, describing a stew blending all three ingredients.

“We need to invest in health promotion, we need to invest in disease prevention, we need to invest in infrastructure,” he said.

Shelley Stingley, program director for the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s rural health care program, said the new center will improve American Indian health in the region.

“Establishing the resource center will help provide technical assistance to tribal communities in the Upper Midwest, such as managing their own health systems and operations,” she said.

Petra Reyna One Haw, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a student in the master of public health program, has a graduate assistantship and will work at the center.

She plans to help Standing Rock improve access to healthy food and help remove barriers to adopting a healthy lifestyle. Residents often must travel to Bismarck-Mandan for groceries, making it more difficult to keep fresh produce.

“How do we build that infrastructure?” she said. “That’s what’s missing.”

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to