Renata Birkenbuel


In the midst of the isolating COVID pandemic, a tiny, skilled group of community tribal leaders took on a brand new University of North Dakota doctoral program in Indigenous Health – the first of its kind globally.

A chief public health officer, a tribal liaison-turned-academic, a perinatal nonprofit specialist and a sustainable foods educator all sought more training to hone their considerable expertise.

On Aug. 4, they graduated in front of friends, family and many Indigenous faculty. The newly anointed doctors of Indigenous Health can now apply the all-encompassing discipline to a wide range of Indigenous community projects.

Mona Zuffante, Seneca Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma, works full time as the chief public health officer for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, plus she’s a part-time EMT. Finishing her doctorate simultaneously was no small feat. She oversees 15 field health programs on the reservation.

Having started the inaugural program in 2020, the students especially appreciated learning from Indigenous instructors during the pandemic shutdown.

“It was so empowering, I think, just being around other Indigenous like-minded health, public health-related fields,” said Zuffante. “And this was the very first time I've ever been taught by an Indigenous instructor. Wow. It was very, very, very new.”

Graduate Amy Stiffarm immediately put her hard-won degree to good use.

“I was able to implement things right away that I was learning in school,” said Stiffarm, Aaniiih Tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Community and a descendant of the Chippewa Cree and Blackfeet Tribes in Montana. “I don't want my dissertation to sit on the shelf. I wanted to be able to work with community, give back to community, and I feel really good that I'm able to do that in my new position and with my education.”

Stiffarm, mother of two daughters, hosts a podcast, Maternal Health Innovation. Last winter, she began work at Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Montana, which she incorporated into her training toolkit dissertation.

“It’s a nonprofit doing statewide work with helping support other programs on the perinatal population, as well as babies, age zero to three, and families,” said Stiffarm. “They created a Native American initiatives program that I manage, and I’m just really trying to be more intentional about building relationships. It's about building healthy starts and healthy beginnings for Montana children.”

Because the Indigenous Health Ph.D. curriculum is completely virtual, Stiffarm fit in online meetings and courses while taking care of her children at home. It was demanding, but when she caught her daughter auditioning in the mirror to get into Harvard, she knew she was on track as a leader and a parent.

“But specifically, I've been kind of focused on growing awareness about mental health complications, perinatal mental health, and helping non-Indigenous providers understand about cultural safety for Indigenous women and birthing people.”

Displaying exceptional perseverance, the four laid the groundwork for doctoral studies with solid background credentials, including master's degrees in public health.

“When we created this program, we created a mini-syllabi for each course,” said high-energy program co-designer Melanie Nadeau, Ojibwe, who collaborated with UND professor Donald Warne. “When we launched it, we were targeting the working professional … people who won’t have to leave their community.”

Basic requirements for students accepted into the doctoral program include biostatistics and epidemiology.

“They all did the community-oriented track,” said Nadeau. “They came in working for their communities. Our conversations in class were incredible.”

The interdisciplinary approach drew Cole Allick, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota and a tribal liaison-turned-academic who now teaches Ph.D. candidates in the program from Seattle.

“The graduation day was really special for us to be together,” said Allick, as it was the first time he met most of his program peers. “The new cohorts have been able to meet in person, which I think sets the stage for a lot richer of an experience.”

He worked as a tribal liaison for Washington State University while earning his doctorate, plus he focused on healthcare consulting. He managed research projects for the National Institutes of Health and other foundations while taking full-time courses.

“Like Mona said, ‘You’ve got to stay organized.’ It’s not easy doing double duty,” Allick added.

Now, to his surprise, he’s jumped into the academic side, teaching policy courses alongside Warne, his former advisor.

“I realized that I could still have a pretty big footprint being an academic, going into a research assistant professor position. I didn't realize that I had a passion for teaching.”

Having professors “who look like you and who understand you and your identity” made all the difference, Allick said. “You don't have to over-explain anything. And then having your cohort mates who are equally as supportive and equally passionate about challenging systems, I think that in itself, and then just mentorship too, just makes you think, wow, this feels good.”

The innovative dynamic clicked for Danya Carroll, too, the fourth graduate and Navajo and White Mountain Apache. After earning her master’s, she began working for her community.

“That first-hand experience really opened my eyes more to the great need within our tribes, and especially when I guess it comes to food,” said Carroll. “Food is really tied to a lot of our cultural teachings and traditions, and it's tied to the land and the water … our strengths and assets as tribes.”

Many diseases – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, mental health – stem from diet while health relies on access to healthy, fresh food, she said, adding that prevention is key.

While working with tribal farms, Carroll sought to build “on the Indigenous knowledge and strengths that we have that exists and that need to be acknowledged, especially in academia.”

She immediately applied real-world classroom knowledge to her job.

Warne, Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, led the accreditation process, on top of advising and teaching. He wears many hats, as he is co-director of the Center for Indigenous Health and provost fellow for Indigenous Health Policy at Johns-Hopkins University.

He still teaches part-time at UND, since the doctoral program remains totally online.

“This is the only one that is designed completely around Indigenous Health,” said Warne. The University of Toronto in Canada offers an emphasis – but not a full-blown doctorate program – in the discipline.

Warne said eight of the 10 UND Indigenous Health faculty are Indigenous – a groundbreaking achievement.

“It is exceedingly rare … we do have some non-Indigenous instructors, but they are genuine allies,” he said. “A large group of the instructors grew up in the Dakotas and understand the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples in the Northern Plains.”

The program now boasts 60 students, ready to follow the trailblazing graduates.

“We are walking in two worlds in academia: the Western approach and Indigenous approach,” said Nadeau. “So we train them in both ways.”

Zuffante was determined to up her game for her community.

“I really wanted to help our people,” said Zuffante, whose job includes analyzing key data. “And so when I saw it was indigenous health, I thought that would be a perfect opportunity to further my knowledge, but also find ways to help our people more than what is being done today.”

Carroll, like her peers, thrived – in and out of the classroom.

“It’s not very often that Native students are the majority,” said Carroll, “especially in the classroom. Sometimes you're the only Native student, but in this program, most of us were Indigenous and all the faculty were Indigenous. So it was really, really an amazing experience.”

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2023-09-26T10:13:33Z dg43tfdfdgfd