National Native American Heritage Month 2022: Listening to Their Voices

November is National Native American Heritage Month (NAHM), a time for us to honor the Native people of this land and their historical legacy and ongoing accomplishments. This month of recognition began at the turn of the century as one day to celebrate the significant contributions that the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the United States, and it has now evolved and grown well beyond that day.

At NIH, this year’s theme for NAHM is “In Our Voices,” focusing on listening to Native American people of the 574 federally recognized Tribes to learn about their perspectives and experiences. As Acting NIH Director Dr. Larry Tabak recently wrote, NIH firmly believes that highlighting voices from the Native American community is imperative to supporting our current workforce and attracting talent, and towards this end, NIH senior leaders held a listening session to hear about issues affecting Native Americans in our workplace. This November, we reaffirm NIH's commitment to working with Tribal nations on the best ways to strengthen our cultural competencies and recognize the contributions of Native people throughout the calendar year. We also acknowledge that NIH sits on the ancestral homelands of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe. These lands are important to Native Americans throughout this region. We honor their past, present, and future generations, who have lived here for millennia and will forever call this place home.

At NINDS, we are equally committed to building a more diverse workforce of neuroscientists, and are fortunate to have the NINDS Office of Programs to Enhance Workforce Diversity (OPEN), led by Michelle Jones-London, Ph.D. The office has established various strategies to enhance the diversity of neuroscientists, including creating and publishing NINDS Success Stories, which highlight outstanding scientists who have used NINDS diversity programs to become successful researchers in their field. These stories provide opportunities to hear from these scientists in their voices, including:

  • Rachel Dreilinger: a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and the co-founder and CEO of NeuraMedica, Inc., a neurosurgery device company. The company is developing a novel bioabsorbable surgical clip and applier for rapid closure of the dura mater (the membrane that protects the brain and spinal cord) in open and minimally invasive spine surgery. This technology aims to help neurosurgeons more easily repair the dura. Rachel was supported by an NINDS Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for this work, and her company just received FDA clearance for their Durafuse Dural Clips this past summer.
  • Naomi Lee, Ph.D.: a member of the Seneca Nation and Assistant Professor at North Arizona University. Naomi was a postdoctoral fellow in the NINDS Intramural Research Program (IRP) with Steve Jacobson, a NIH Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) Fellow, and was also part of the NIH-funded Native Investigator Development Program, a two-year training experience that cultivates externally-funded scientists who focus on health disparities and aging issues for Native populations.

NINDS also co-leads the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Program, which supports graduate students from diverse backgrounds, including those from Native American communities, to facilitate the transition to a strong neuroscience research postdoctoral position. The program provides career development opportunities relevant to their long-term career goal of becoming independent neuroscience researchers. The program supports many promising neuroscience scholars, including Aaron Sampson, Ph.D., a member of the Choctaw Nation, and Laura Bell, a direct descendent of Cherokee Native American people.

We are also committed to supporting research education programs in all areas – basic, clinical and translational – that will significantly advance our mission. Below are a few NINDS-supported research education programs that demonstrate NINDS’s investment in supporting programs to provide high quality neuroscience research experiences for Native American communities:

  • Undergraduate Readying for Burgeoning Research for American Indian Neuroscientists (URBrain): Led by Kathleen Rodgers, Ph.D., this program is a culturally aware and community oriented collaborative partnership between Diné College, the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center for Innovation in Brain Science, the Biomedical Learning and Student Training program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and NIH.
  • Indians into Medicine: Native Educator University Research Opportunity in Neuroscience (INMED: NEUROscience): Led by Holly Brown-Borg, Ph.D., NEURO is a professional development program that places teachers in a research lab at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. In this lab, teachers will gain first-hand experience conducting science research and will work with science educators to translate their research experience into the classroom. This comprehensive professional development program aims to build on and improve teachers’ understanding of the scientific process and support their science teaching to provide learning environments for American Indian students that foster scientific inquiry and promote the attainment of careers in health care.

Through our NINDS Intramural Research Program, I am especially proud of our Health Disparities in Tribal Communities Summer Internship Program (HDTC-SIP), which helps high school, undergraduate, and graduate students prepare for neuroscience careers, while increasing their exposure to a variety of topics related to health disparities research in Tribal communities. Through the hard work of Rita Devine, Ph.D., Assistant Director for Science Administration in the Division of Intramural Research, fully-funded students spend eight to 10 weeks working side-by-side with investigators. HDTC-SIP interns have the opportunity to meet weekly with their cohort of trainees for several professional development activities, including journal clubs led by well-known scientists in various fields related to health disparities in Tribal communities. Many outstanding young scientists have graduated from the program and continued onto stellar scientific careers, including:

  • Corbin Schuster, Ph.D.: an Assistant Professor of Microbiology at Heritage University, and a member of the Yakama Nation, Dr. Schuster’s participation in the program, in collaboration with NINDS and with NIDDK researchers, solidified his interest in academic research.
  • Deionna Vigil, M.P.H.: from Nanbe Owingeh (Nambe Pueblo), Deionna is a Senior Research Program Coordinator with the Infectious Disease Prevention team at the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health. Her internship research focused on clinical research regulation and the ethical inclusion of Indigenous peoples in clinical research studies that are not specific to Indigenous peoples or a Native Nation.

These efforts extend to our trans-agency initiatives as well. NINDS collaborates with our partners across the NIH with the Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, a trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. To better support research and the development of research infrastructure to aid American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) and their communities, NIH wanted to hear from them to identify community relevant solutions to the opioid crisis, including reducing suffering due to chronic pain, opioid addiction, and by preventing overdose deaths. Thus, earlier this year, a Tribal Consultation was held to request input from Tribal Nations about their priority areas of research interest and research-related needs to address the opioid crisis and support new strategies to improve chronic pain management and opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose in AI/AN communities. In response to the Consultation, NIH is incorporating Tribal input into the development of culturally relevant and appropriate research strategies that address the ongoing opioid crisis including addressing chronic pain. These efforts will be informed by the identified needs for expanded research capacity and enhanced infrastructure for data and implementation science. In addition, NINDS also participates in a HEAL funding opportunity that focuses on accelerating implementation of effective non-opioid interventions for chronic pain management in rural and remote populations, including American Indian and/or Alaska Native Tribal populations.

NINDS staff are also participants in activities for the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). The SACNAS mission is to foster the success of Hispanic/Chicano and Native American scientists - from college students to professionals - to attain advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in science. NIH has a SACNAS chapter, which serves students and professionals, providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and a place where NIH trainees and staff from different science disciplines can meet to network, share successes, and strategize about future goals in a supportive environment. The chapter meets regularly throughout the year and focuses alternately on scientific communication, networking, and career development.

As we recognize Native American Heritage Month in November and throughout the year, we recognize the many contributions of the Native American people and re-affirm our commitment to listen to their voices, on the land that we now call the United States, in the biomedical research that we support, and in our workforce.

I'd also invite you to take an opportunity to review and spend time on the NIH’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion webpage dedicated to the Native American portfolio.