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Advancing Native American health sciences

When Naomi Bender took over Washington State University Spokane’s Native American Health Sciences (NAHS) program in 2018, her first duty was listening to the tribal communities across the Pacific Northwest. Doing so has helped NAHS expand greatly.

“Without this precious time to listen, learn, and build relationships, the vision for NAHS would not have revealed itself in the wonderful and unique ways it has,” she said.

When Bender arrived in 2018, there were no more than 40 Native students enrolled in WSU Spokane’s health sciences programs. Now, there are 54 Native students enrolled at WSU Spokane. There used to be two pathway programs for Native students, and that number has ballooned to 13. All of this was done with just two full-time staff members. Since then, a third staff member has come on board.

Native American high school students work in the Nursing simulation lab during the 2019 Na-ha-shnee Summer Institute.

Bender and NAHS have also expanded the amount of clinical affiliations WSU Spokane has with tribal health care systems across the Northwest. Key to these successes were agreements with the Portland Area Indian Health Service and several tribally-run clinics.

“These affiliations not only offer clinical rotation experience for our students within tribally governed health systems, but it provides them an enriched perspective from ‘culture as medicine’ through healing modalities and responses that are governed and self-determined by individual sovereign nations,” Bender said.

As WSU Spokane celebrates Native American Heritage Month, Bender and her team continue to expand NAHS. The latest accomplishment is the creation of the Center for Native American Health, a space on campus that is open to Native and non-Native students. A portion of a $500,000 grant from Empire Health Foundation helped develop the space.

The Center boasts study space, healing space, gathering and food preparation stations, cultural space, and indigenous clinical simulation space. Thanks to a Bank of America grant, NAHS will be able to expand its clinical simulation space in the center. 

Native American high school students take each other’s blood pressure during the 2019 Na-ha-shnee Summer Institute.

The grand opening celebration and blessing of the center was one of Bender’s most memorable moments.

“I had only dreamed about it since the day I came here three years ago,” she said. “It was more beautiful than I had imagined it to be. It inspired me to do my best in honoring the needs of our tribes and students. It’s a memory that will be with me for a lifetime.”

NAHS offers plenty of programming each year. The Na-ha-shnee STEAM Summer Institute is well-known, and interest is only growing. Bender is quick to credit the help she receives from tribal elders across the Northwest and the Native American Health Sciences Advisory Board. 

“It has been the words and wisdom of my elders that have helped us reach our goals,” she said. “They are the ones who have not only provided me with insight into their histories and visions of future for their people, but the ways in which we do it must be honored.”

Added WSU Vice President for Health Sciences and WSU Spokane Chancellor Daryll DeWald: “WSU and the Office of Tribal Relations has been committed for many years to elevating Native American Health Sciences, and I’m thrilled with the growth we’ve seen in the past three years.”

Students and staff hang out in the new Center for Native American Health at WSU Spokane.

In addition to Empire Health Foundation and Bank of America, other community partners that support NAHS programming include Avista, Wells Fargo, STCU and individual contributors. The colleges of Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences have also been instrumental in building NAHS.

Ultimately, it will always be the students who impact Bender’s drive to serve Native populations.

“Those who know me and my work know I am passionate about what I do, who I do it for, and why I do it,” she said. “It is no surprise that those who continue to inspire me and this work are our future.”

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