Community, Research, and Health: The Work of William Freeman

Volume 25, No. 2 - Winter 2013
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William Freeman is well-known in Indian circles. Though non-Native, he has spent all of his adult life advocating for better healthcare for American Indians. His work has focused on the resiliency and strength of Native peoples, mental health and wellness, community-based participatory research, substance abuse disorders, developmental or physical disabilities, research ethics, and the role that individuals and communities play in research endeavors. Harboring a great respect for community and tradition, Freeman’s impact on behavioral health at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) has been broad and remarkably effective.

HEALTH AND SOVEREIGNTY. For over 20 years, Bill Freeman has been working with Native communities to develop Indigenous research models and health initiatives.

HEALTH AND SOVEREIGNTY. For over 20 years, Bill Freeman has been working with Native communities to develop Indigenous research models and health initiatives.

Currently the program director at the Center for Health at Northwest Indian College (NWIC) in Bellingham, Washington, Freeman spent many years as a medical doctor on the Lummi reservation in Washington State and working for Indian Health Services (IHS) in the Pacific Northwest. “My first work with American Indian/Alaska Native people was working directly for a tribe, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community,” Freeman says. There, only one year into medical school, he saw firsthand how wonderfully affirming community could be. Due to his efforts, the Swinomish tribal chairman asked him to develop and conduct a health survey of the tribe. And that project, a cooperative effort involving Freeman and the community, taught him the benefits of collaborative engagement between health care providers and tribes and tribally based organizations.

After earning his M.D. and a master’s degree in public health at the University of Washington, Freeman spent 25 years with IHS and eventually became director of the agency’s research program, supporting and promoting studies with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. He went on to initiate a research project about knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding HIV and, with the help of Native researchers and tribal community members, he established the IHS’s Institutional Review Board.

At NWIC, Freeman has helped develop the Native American Research Centers for Health (NARCH)—an initiative that supports partnerships between tribes and institutions which engage in medical and behavioral health research. Freeman is “a close and well-respected partner with tribes” in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, says Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), former president at NWIC and current president of the American Indian College Fund. “I consider him a key person who helped increase the National Institute of Health’s [NIH] assistance to tribes and TCUs to apply for NIH grants. Funding the Native American Research Centers for Health came from a collaboration that Freeman had with Dr. Clif Poodry [Seneca] at NIH.” As a result of Freeman’s work, NWIC became the first TCU to have a NARCH.

Freeman is also a living organ donor, which has shaped his philosophy on health and research. “Because I am a living kidney donor, I also have both a professional and personal interest in the care of living organ donors before and after donation… and its relationship with research ethics.” For Freeman, this experience underscores the importance of preventive medicine. And preventative medicine is precisely how NWIC is taking steps to reclaim Indigenous ownership of behavioral and tribal health.

Freeman understands there are diverse concepts of wellness and that different peoples employ various means to maintain health. For example, NWIC focuses on women’s health and wellness, which includes the use of traditional plants. By blending Indigenous healing practices with Western methodologies, Freeman attempts to define a holistic Native view of health.

Exploring what works for different tribal nations can have enormous consequences, and the research surrounding this is Freeman’s forte. “Accelerating research being done by tribes maximizes the benefits to tribal people and minimizes the problems. All of this gives tribes more control over research. This is not a new concept. The mindset that Indian people did not have control is of course part of the colonial takeover.” Past research has always emphasized pathologies and weaknesses, particularly with alcohol. Freeman points out that a higher percentage of Indians do not drink in comparison to the larger population.

However devastating the colonial footprint was, it did not foresee the resilience of Indigenous people. The fact that tribal communities have been able to blend and maintain their traditional practices of healthy living shouts resiliency. It is anyone’s guess why researchers did not focus on this much sooner. “Foods and plants that were brought in as implements of healing and wellness are all paramount in the traditional quality of resiliency in tribal people,” says Freeman. “The power of Indian women is also part of resiliency. They have never been servile. That quality was never traditional. Reclaiming their power is traditional.” Tradition can mean different things to different people. But for many tribal communities, traditional practices, rituals, and worldviews are the heart of their existence—and the mechanism through which they are reclaiming and maintaining tribal health.

Barbara Ellen Sorensen served as the senior editor of Winds of Change magazine for 15 years. She now freelances and attends Regis University in Denver, where she is completing a Master of Arts degree in creative writing.

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