The Native Environmental Health Research Network: A Model for Service-Oriented Collaborative Research

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According to a 2004 report of the Tribal Association for Solid Waste and Emergency Response, there are over 15,000 hazardous waste sites on or next to tribal lands that present potential risks to tribal communities. Of these sites, 979 are Superfund sites, 582 are hazardous waste sites, 1,104 are open dumps, 7,889 are mines, 4,075 are leaky underground storage tanks, and 320 are formerly used defense sites. For tribes with a subsistence culture based on bounties from the local environment, there may be an increased risk of exposure to toxins from these sites. This has contributed to significant health disparities in Indian Country. Exacerbating this situation is the underrepresentation of Native Americans in STEM fields, meaning that tribes often lack the trained personnel and research facilities to address these issues internally. This type of work therefore is often conducted outside the tribes by non-tribal members and non-tribal entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, which may not take into consideration cultural practices, subsistence, and other Native-specific factors in their conventional risk assessments. 

For some tribes, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) could be a resource to tackle these environmental contamination and health concerns. However, out of the more than 500 tribes, there are only 37 TCUs in the United States, and most of them are two-year institutions without the necessary research capacity or expertise to address these concerns. That leaves the vast majority of tribes with few Native options. So what is the solution?      

One possible solution to both of these problems is the Native Environmental Health Research (NEHR) Network. The NEHR Network’s goal is to link tribes with research and human resources of TCUs and Native American-serving non-tribal institutions (NASNTIs) in order to help address these pressing environmental health issues. The NEHR Network offers Native undergraduate and graduate students at participating research institutions and programs the opportunity to help tribal communities that are grappling with these issues.

The Network center is located in the Department of Life Sciences at Salish Kootenai College (SKC), and acts as an administrative hub to develop, direct, and coordinate these collaborations (see Figure 1). In this model, tribal environmental programs contact the NEHR Network center describing their need. The center then reaches out to its two academic research wings—the participating TCUs and NASNTIs—to see if there are both human and material resources (i.e., students, facilities, and instrumentation) to work on a tribe’s project. Collaborating with the tribe and community representatives, a focused research project is developed and a Native research team assembled. These typically follow along the lines of the community-based participatory research model. By itself, one specific project may not be that large and therefore not draw the funding interest of a given agency. However, if the center can bundle together a sufficient number of projects from more than one tribe the odds of funding are increased, as an agency can see a larger impact from their support.


Figure 1. Model of the Native Environmental Health Research (NEHR) Network.

There are several advantages of this model. First, the tribes get a cadre of culturally competent Native student scientists who they can trust to work on their needs. Second, the students get valuable research experience towards their degree. These community-engaged research experiences have been shown to improve student retention and degree attainment. This increases the number of Native students trained in the environmental health field who can go back to their tribes with this valuable training. Additionally, during the contact between the students and community, the students act as role models and peer mentors to the community’s youth, and hopefully stimulate their interest and recruitment into STEM careers. Along the way there are also many opportunities for cultural exchanges and bridge building. It puts a human face on the students’ research and enhances the students’ buy-in for these research projects.

We are already putting this model to the test with positive results. The center is in the second year of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a Native American Research Center of Health. The NIH funds two active research cores. One involves students from Northern Arizona University and Diné College who work together on the Navajo Nation assessing the extent to which sheep are a vector of uranium exposure for Navajo tribal members. The other involves students from the environmental health track in the life sciences program at SKC who are working on environmental health concerns of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and the Houlton Band of Maliseets in northern Maine, some 3,000 miles away. We are using community-based research methods that involve SKC students working directly with Maine tribal members on issues of heavy metal contamination, such as mercury exposure from fish and arsenic exposure from private wells. They have helped in the collection of samples and performed the analyses back at SKC as part of their degree plan. In this way, we are also helping to build the research capacity of these communities as they take responsibility to administer and direct their research. So far the feedback from each project has been very positive.

In a separate project, the Environmental Protection Agency has also funded students at two-year tribal colleges to engage in summer research at the SKC environmental lab. In 2015, two Bay Mill Community College (BMCC) students worked alongside SKC students to assess the risk/benefit from the mercury and omega-3 fish oils in their community’s traditional fish species. This summer we are hoping to expand this program to also include students from neighboring Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College as well as another cohort from BMCC. This collaboration not only provides quality research experiences for these participating students within a Native cultural environment, but also increases their success in bridging to four-year institutions. It helps build capacity at these two-year institutions by sharing resources across the Network. For example, if one of these participating two-year TCUs have samples that need analysis which they cannot perform themselves, the samples can be sent to one of the other participants, such as SKC.

Another function of the NERH Network center has been to help sponsor and organize the biannual Tribal Environmental Health Summit. These gatherings are small yet focused, bringing together Native scientists, university researchers, and high-level representatives from government agencies to address environmental health disparities in tribal communities, and to build and strengthen partnerships and policymaking. The first summit was held in 2014 at SKC, the second in 2016 at Northern Arizona University, and the 2018 summit will convene in Corvallis, Oregon, at Oregon State University.

The motivating factor of the Network is finding resources among participating institutions and developing them to be of service to the tribal communities who need them. Although the scope of the Network has been small, we are proving the principle of the model and laying the groundwork so that it can be expanded further in the future for the benefit of under-served tribal communities.

Douglas K. Stevens, Ph.D., is head of the Department of Life Sciences at Salish Kootenai College and the director of the Native Environmental Health Research Network.

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