Eighth Annual Indigenous Health &
Securing a Healthy Future
Above: Sarah Esmond (l) and Amy Poupart; Middle: Dr. Shiloh Small (l) and her family; Right: Dr. Brett Benally Thompson
By Jonathan Gramling
Just like the African American community, Native communities across the United States experience health disparities. According to the
Indian Health Service, “American Indians and Alaska Natives die at higher rates than other Americans from tuberculosis (500 percent
higher), alcoholism (514 percent higher), diabetes (177 percent higher) and unintentional injuries (140 percent higher).” The average life
expectancy for Native people is also 5.2 years less that the U.S. population as a whole.
One of the factors exacerbating this is the lack of physicians who are able to provide culturally-competent medicine. Native
communities are often hit with a double whammy: a dearth of American Indians in the health professions and the lack of doctors in rural
areas where American Indians reservations, for the most part, are located.
For the past eight years, the UW-Madison and Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council’s Native American Research Center for Health have
teamed up to bring more Native students into the health professional pipeline. On April 27, the collaboration brought about 80 Native
students from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan to the UW-Madison
campus for the 8th Annual Indigenous Health & Wellness Day.
Over the course of the day, which started at the Health Sciences Learning Center and ended at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery,
the students were exposed to what the UW-Madison campus had to offer them in a culturally-relevant way. For instance, in the long walk
across campus from the HSLC, the students were shown some of the Indian mounds left on campus by the Ho-Chunk many centuries
ago. In essence, they were shown how they have always belonged in the setting of higher education.
“We bring the students to campus and give them the experience of what it is like to be on campus, familiarize themselves with
programs that are available, people with whom we are in communication who can help them and just give them some encouragement
to go into health and science and research because that is what our program is about,” said Amy Poupart, student development
coordinator for the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health. “That’s a great partnership with the UW. They are trying to
increase the number of Native students who go into those fields. That is what it is really about. Our students who do come are already
interested or have shown an interest. They range from middle school to high school. And it just gives them the experience of being here
and gives them encouragement. The students come from public schools, tribal schools and for the first time we have students from the
Minneapolis/St. Paul area, which is great to have. We try to get representation from all of the tribes in the state, but aren’t always able
because of the transportation and scheduling issues. But that is our goal, to get as much representation from as many areas of the state
that we can.”
And the students do need encouragement due to the dearth of role models whom they can look up to and receive guidance from. Dr.
Shiloh Small is completing her residency at UW Hospitals & Clinics. She grew up in Harden, Montana, a small town on the Northern
Cheyenne reservation. She didn’t have any role models and faced a lot of subtle — and not so subtle — adversity.
“I had some people who didn’t believe in what I was doing or told me to find something else because I probably wouldn’t be able to be a
doctor,” said Small who is an OB/GYN. “I had my doubts because I didn’t know any Native doctors and I didn’t know any Indians who
came off of my reservation and went to medical school. I had my parents who always believed in me and my grandmother would always
push me. But I started to realize that there were not a lot of people like me. That was hard and that probably caused some of the doubt.”
When people did discourage her and tell her no, she found people who would say yes.
“I did get a second opinion and good thing that I had my mom to tell me that I needed to go and talk to someone else,” Small said. “And
the advisor whom I found was great. He really did push me. He believed in me. You need support. You need someone to tell you that you
can do and here is why and this is what you have already accomplished and you need to move forward. And you need to believe in
yourself and that is really hard too because as you get further and further along, as you are jumping through all of these hoops, there is
self-doubt there. I go back to the reservation and I have people say, ‘Gosh, you’re a doctor? Wow, how did that happen?’”
After Small finishes her residency, she will be headed for Anchorage, Alaska where she will work four years at the Alaskan Native
Medical Center to fulfill her commitment to the Indian Health Service, which helped her with her educational expenses. And in Small’s
case, she probably didn’t need any coaxing to continue to serve Native people. After her stint in Alaska, Small is thinking on heading
back to the Northern Cheyenne reservation to serve her tribe in some capacity.
That is the kind of example that this project wants to expose the students to.
“We say that it doesn’t necessarily have to be their reservation that they serve,” Poupart enphasized. “But they need to serve a Native
community or Native peoples on some level because that is really important for the communities to see one of their own helping them.
Culture does influence how we perceive our health services. And there is just the feeling of security and trust that a non-Native person
might have to build and take longer to build that trust and feeling of comfort whereas a Native person who understands the family
structures and the dynamics of being a Native person already knows these things and it is just all around beneficial for everyone
According to Dr. Bret Benally Thompson, the health sciences are a win-win situation for Native students.
“Personally, the students need to better themselves through the health field,” Thompson said. “It is a good life for themselves and their
immediate family. Not only that, more importantly, it is to improve the health for Indian people wherever that is, whether they go back to
their communities or they come to a big university like this for the research or clinical knowledge.”
And as the university is able to attract more Native health professionals, it opens up new avenues for UW-Madison to serve Native
“We are at the early stages of developing a Native American Center for Health Professionals,” said Sarah Esmond of UW School of
Medicine and Public Health. “Currently UW-Madison is home to eight Native faculty, which is one of the largest clusters nationally. And
that is a fairly recent phenomenon. So we actually have professionals of Native American descent able to serve as mentors and trainers
for scholars coming up the pipeline. There is a very critical mass of professionals here and it has taken many years. But thanks to the
help of a lot of people, it is beginning to happen.”
Good things continue to happen for Native people on the UW-Madison campus. Stay tuned.