Students complete fieldwork with the Ojibwe, a Native American people

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Issues of global health may be in our backyards.

That was one takeaway of a student minoring in global health who embarked on a different kind of fieldwork with his peers this summer.

“Global health can be in your backyard,” said Steve Hanna, a rising senior majoring in biobehavioral health. “While living with and studying the Ojibwe, a Native American people, we saw communities, here in the United States, that are struggling with issues people may think only happen in underserved populations overseas.”

Inspired by decades of relationships

Three students in the global health minor spent five weeks, as part of their required fieldwork, in northern Minnesota working with the population of the Ojibwe.

The first two weeks were spent immersing in the culture of the Leech Lake Reservation and the Red Lake Reservation, while the last three weeks consisted of academic research at White Earth Reservation.

The trip was inspired by Bruce Martin, an adjunct professor teaching in the community, environment and development major in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at Penn State. Martin developed two courses, CED 400 Exploring Indigenous Ways of Knowing in the Great Lakes Region and CED 401 Exploring Indigenous Ways of Knowing Among the Ojibwe, in partnership with the Ojibwe people of northern Minnesota over the past 15 years.

“Cultural engagement and field experiences are important academic work,” Martin said. “I also believe that the relationships developed in such work are vitally important to research in indigenous communities.”

The trip to northern Minnesota is beneficial in several ways for students minoring in global health.

“The global health minor aims to introduce to and expand on students' understanding of health disparities and social justice issues in a global context,” said Dana Naughton, director of the global health minor. “Students frequently think of such topics as areas to explore outside of the United States and not realize the scope of their relevance in our country.”

For example, Naughton said, Native Americans have lower life expectancy than all other United States populations when categorized by race, and die more frequently of diabetes, liver disease, injuries and other conditions tied to the social determinants of health.

“Offering a global health field-work site within the Ojibwe community is an outstanding opportunity for students to both gain in-depth understanding of the rich and extraordinary culture and heritage of the Ojibwe, as well as insight to the health, socio-economic, environmental and biopsychosocial challenges they face,” she said.

Cultural immersion

The fieldwork started with a two-week experiential learning trip in which students stayed on two Ojibwe reservations: Leech Lake and Red Lake. Students met with Ojibwe leaders and tribe members, participated in ceremonies, and engaged in teachings by members of the community.

They also visited a high school, met with the Red Lake Tribal Council, visited a fishery, went on a 12-mile canoe ride down the Mississippi River, had the opportunity to stay a night with a host family, and participated in drum ceremonies, as well as numerous other experiences.

For Stuti Thapa, a junior nutritional sciences major minoring in global health, the highlight of the two-week experience was getting to stay with her host family in Leech Lake.

“Nancy, my host, was very kind, and the time that I got to spend with her felt extremely special,” Thapa said. “We spent the day making medicine bags out of buckskin and beads and talking about our lives. It was heartbreaking and heavy to hear about all of the pain that she had been through, but it was also an eye-opening experience to the reality of life on the reservation.”

Craig Campbell, assistant professor of lifelong learning and adult education in the College of Education at Penn State and supervisor on the White Earth portion of the trip, said part of what made the time on the reservation special was cultural experiences that were unplanned and happened naturally as a result of students living there and integrating with the residents.

“Things have their own pace and unfolding in rural areas, and that is particularly true on the reservation,” Campbell said. “As a result, we had amazing opportunities emerge that never could have been planned. I was reminded of both the difficulties and great rewards in working with students in this experiential kind of way.”

“These trips are essential in opening one’s eyes to other geographies and cultures,” he added. “By living and working inside representative communities connected to their future work, students can much better understand the lived experiences of those with which they may potentially work.”

Ojibwe cultural immersion

While staying at Leech Lake and Red Lake, students met with Ojibwe leaders and tribe members, participated in ceremonies, and engaged in teachings by members of the community. They also visited a high school, met with the Red Lake Tribal Council, visited a fishery, went on a 12-mile canoe ride down the Mississippi River, had the opportunity to stay a night with a host family, and participated in drum ceremonies, as well as numerous other experiences. 

Image: Steve Hanna

Environmental research

The second part of the fieldwork consisted of academic research and learning about the health, political, social and cultural issues that affect the community. During this portion of the trip, students completed an internship at White Earth Reservation working on the nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP). The project’s mission is to facilitate the recovery of the original land base of the White Earth Reservation while preserving and restoring traditional practices of sound land stewardship, language fluency and community development.

Robert Shimek, director of the WELRP, identified the research projects the students would be working on, and provided supervision to the students throughout their internships. He personally met with each student on the first day of the internship to discuss each one's research project based on their academic interests and knowledge bases.

He also took the time to meet with the students on a regular basis, and provide feedback on their research projects.

"The students were very well prepared and highly motivated to work at White Earth," Shimek said. "It was a great opportunity all around."

Martin said he is impressed by Shimek's commitment to the community, the work of the WELRP, his employees, and the students who come to work at the organization.

"Shimek wants the students to accomplish something for the White Earth community, but also to achieve personal goals and insights into their own lives," Martin said.

The students' research projects included pesticide/pesticide drift, nutrition and food system safety, and historical trauma. Through both individual and group projects, they worked to create health promotional materials that targeted each of the focus areas. In addition, the students participated in community events such as film screenings, powwows and talks.

For his individual project, Hanna studied how pesticides are a concern for the local population. He learned that if pesticides are sprayed too low and the climate is windy, the chemicals can spread and impact the health of the people living there.

“I put together a brochure and web material on pesticide drift,” he said.

Students Hanna, Thapa and Katherine Huskin completed a group project that examined the potential environmental and nutritional impacts of the New Line 3 Pipeline Project, a 340-mile, 36-inch-diameter pipeline proposed to transport 760,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily from Canada to Superior, Wisconsin.

The group also visited North Dakota State University, where they toured a research lab that is working to identify qualities in plants that could be used in the prevention of diseases like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. The students also visited an organic farm, where they learned about the organic farming process.

Minnesota Global Health trip

The first two weeks of the trip to northern Minnesota were spent immersing in the culture of the Leech Lake Reservation and the Red Lake Reservation, while the last three weeks consisted of academic research at White Earth Reservation. The trip was inspired by Bruce Martin, an adjunct professor teaching in the community, education and development major in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at Penn State. Martin developed two courses in partnership with the Ojibwe people of northern Minnesota over the past 15 years.

Image: Steve Hanna

From class to community to career

Thapa said the internship with White Earth Land Recovery Project drew on some of the courses she has taken as an undergraduate student, including Community Nutrition and Global Nutrition Issues. This provided an opportunity for her to use what she learned in the classroom and apply it to her work on the project.

“I was working in the Native American community, so I used knowledge from the Community Nutrition course to accomplish tasks at my internship,” she said. “Secondly, the knowledge I gained from Global Nutrition Issues was helpful because in some ways, a Native American reservation can resemble a different country and therefore have health issues that are common in developing countries.”

One example, Thapa said, was nutrient deficiencies in vitamins and minerals due to the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet.

“In Global Nutrition, we also learned about health issues that affect the United States and some of those issues overlapped for this population,” she said. 

Thapa also said she believes she can apply her experience in the internship to her future career because it exposed her to a new avenue of nutrition-related studies.

“I gained experience working in a nonprofit, which is something I'm interested in doing in the future,” she said. “During this experience I also gained professional skills such as how to communicate with people, how to be culturally aware in conversations, and how to be flexible with time and scheduling, which I can apply to whatever future career I choose to pursue.”

Huskin, who graduated in August with majors in international relations and French and a minor in global health, said the trip helped prepare her for upcoming work with the Peace Corps.

“Through the experience I learned about complexities surrounding global health, which will help me during my Peace Corps service in West Africa,” she said. “I have a deeper understanding about what it means to be a Western person working in international development.”

Huskin also appreciates the relationships she developed, both with her fellow classmates and the people on the reservations, she said.

“Sometimes, I feel, Westerners go into development projects seeing themselves as altruists, but I can say that during my time in Minnesota, I was taken care of more than I helped anyone else,” she said. “I gained a much greater depth of perception about what is important in life from many of the amazing people I met throughout the trip, native and non-native, that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

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Last Updated August 30, 2017