2nd Annual Symposium on American Indian Health Draws Speakers from Nine Tribal Nations

In partnership with the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association (NAFFA), the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health hosted a special conference on effective family-based strategies to promote Native American health across the lifespan at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on May 1, 2017. 

The event, titled “Engaging the Strength of Family to Promote Lifelong Health: Lessons from the First Americans,” featured speakers from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and areas of the country, including nine different tribal nations. However, their speeches shared a common theme: the importance of family and indigenous parenting culture in achieving a healthy future for Native Americans.

The event included three panels discussing the role of indigenous cultures in promoting health and resilience, the importance of engaging families across the lifespan, and the long-term impact of toxic stress, trauma, and substance use.


The symposium brought together over 100 participants including leaders from national tribal organizations, Johns Hopkins institutions, private foundations, allied political leaders, and experts in family advocacy.

Albert Pooley, founder and president of NAFFA, began the event by making a powerful case for the pivotal role of family in confronting the challenges facing tribes.

“The heart of our Native American culture is not the language, it is not the food, it is not the customs, it is not the dress; the heart of who we are is family,” Pooley said. “Our families are the hearts of who we are.”

A silver bullet?

During one panel, Dr. Allison Barlow, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, explained how early childhood interventions such as the Center’s Family Spirit home visiting program for new mothers can break destructive cycles.

“People say there is no silver bullet, but home visiting, early childhood interventions are the silver bullet actually,” Dr. Barlow said.

“I’ve seen the positive impact that Family Spirit has had on many families in my community,” said Crystal Kee, a member of the Navajo Nation who is a senior trainer for Family Spirit (pictured below, middle).

Family Spirit is currently active in nearly 100 tribal communities across 15 states and has received the highest possible rating from the federal government for an evidence-based childhood home visiting service delivery model.

Cultural Rigor

Dr. Nancy Whitesell and Dr. Alicia Mousseau from the University of Colorado explored the adaptation of public health programs to new populations.

“We need not just scientific rigor, but cultural rigor. We need to be just as rigorous about culture as we are about science,” Dr. Whitesell said. “If we aren’t, then the best science we do really won’t be good science.”

Parents Set a Vision

Dr. John Walkup, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical School (above) capped off the panels with a discussion of the ways in which the public health community can work to build resilience in American Indian youth.

“That’s really what we’re all about, in terms of restoring family and community, is creating parental leaders, who lead their children by their vision of what they want for themselves and for the future,” Dr. Walkup said. Dr. Walkup used the metaphor of ducklings following their mother to water to highlight the need for direction in parenting.

Traditional Knowledge with Medical Expertise

Rear Admiral Chris Buchanan, Acting Director of the Indian Health Service (above) made closing remarks. Rear Admiral Buchanan discussed the efficiency with which the IHS provides medical treatment to American Indian communities and its desire to partner with organizations like the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

“While we have many obstacles to overcome, whether it is living in isolated areas or historical trauma, we also know that we have traditional knowledge combined with medical expertise that can educate and allow us to engage with extended families to lift the health and wellness of all generations to the highest level,” Rear Admiral Buchanan said.

The symposium was made possible with support from the Aetna Foundation and in collaboration with Casey Family Programs, whose mission is to provide, improve, and ultimately prevent the need for foster care.

The organizing partners are developing a conference report.

Watch the symposium on YouTube:

Keynote by Donald Warne, MD, MPH (Oglala Lakota) North Dakota State University

Panel 1: Sacred Families, Healthy Children: How the Roots of Indigenous Culture Promote Health and Resilience

Panel 2: Engaging Families Across the Lifespan

Panel 3: Parenting as Medicine Against Toxic Stress, Trauma and Substance Use: Best Practices

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