Introduction – What is the NEHR Network?

Many Native American communities face a spectrum of health disparities. This is particularly true when it comes to environmental health issues. Native lands are often disproportionately impacted with various toxics, for example, waste left from legacy mining operations (e.g., heavy metals) and closed military bases (e.g., PCBs), as well as contaminated traditional foods that are often consumed at rates much higher than the average American diet (e.g., subsistence fishing).

Tribal environmental departments are often tasked with managing these contaminated resources and evaluating the risks they may pose to their community. However, this may require resources that many tribes do not have to do this work “in-house”, such as research laboratories, instrumentation and appropriately trained personnel. To assist in helping to address this gap, the Department of Life Sciences at Salish Kootenai College has developed the Center for the Native Environmental Health Research (NEHR) Network.

The mission of the Native Environmental Health Research (NEHR) Network is to develop and implement active, innovative models for a collaborative network focused on building and sharing capacity and expertise at the Tribe and Tribal College level to address issues of environmental health, disproportionately experience on Native lands. The Center acts as an administrative “hub” for the activities of the Network, as well as being the interface with partnerships developed with involved government agencies/programs, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Indian Health Service (IHS). (see “Model”)

This NEHR Network is intended as a resource to better assist tribal leaders and tribal environmental managers in addressing these pressing environmental health needs in Indian Country. It will provide technical expertise to tribes, as well as expand the pool of skilled Native environmental health professionals trained to undertake community-based research projects and risk assessments.

Involvement of tribal college (TCU) science students and/or Native students at mainstream institutions in community-based participatory (CBPR) research projects in these communities is central to this effort. Participation of Native students in this process helps to build trust within the community to participate in the research. Students can work directly with community members, thereby providing them with a “hands-on” experience to better understand the environmental health issues faced by Native communities. It also provides a powerful cultural component to these students’ research that translates to increased academic performance and retention. This will ultimately result in increasing the numbers of trained, Native graduates with the requisite skills to be the needed ambassadors for future change.

With funding from EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP), this approach has been successfully piloted in both the Micmac community in Maine and Navajo Reservation in Arizona with students from the Salish Kootenai College (SKC) Life Science program and from Northern Arizona University (NAU) and Diné College, respectively. In Maine, SKC students were responsible for a community-based research project aimed at determining the risk to Micmac members from mercury in the fish they consume. In this case, the students helped train tribal samplers on how to collect hair for mercury analysis, how to conduct a consumption survey, as well as being the ones who analyzed the collected hair for mercury. The data were presented back to the Micmac community at the end of the project. This helped both the students, who are required to have a senior research project as part of their SKC BS (Life Sciences) program, as well as providing a valuable service to the Micmac community.

Amy_Corinna_Trey Micmac

SKC Life Sciences students (L to R) Amy Stiffarm, Corinna Littlewolf and Trey Saddler, preparing sampling packages at the Micmac Tribal Health Bldg, Presque Isle, Maine, 2012

In Arizona, there was an interest in determining if sheep were contaminated with uranium from legacy uranium mining from the 50s and 60s and if that might pose a risk to Navajo community members. Both NAU and Dine’ College students were involved in collecting sheep from Navajo members and the subsequent analysis of the sheep tissues for uranium. The results of these pilot projects laid the foundation for subsequent funding from NIH under their Native American Research Centers of Health program (See “NARCH” tab).

The Center is also actively trying to build environmental health capacity at the tribal college level as well. Again, through funding from EPA OSCPP, the Center piloted a project to offer summer undergraduate research internships to tribal college students to build research and environmental analytical chemistry skills. In 2015, 2 students and one faculty member from Bay Mills Community College – a 2-year TCU in northern Michigan – participated in a 10-week undergraduate research project in an area of environmental health of interest to their tribe. In this case, they were interested in the safety of their traditional fish. After working with their community to obtain representative samples, they came to SKC to be trained in the analysis of these samples for mercury, omega-3 fats and selenium. The work was performed in SKC’s undergraduate research labs. These labs are fully-equipped, state-of-the-art labs that support the SKC’s BS (Life Sciences) program, the only 4-year, molecular-based science degree at a tribal college (see “SKC Life Sciences program”, and “NEHR internships”). Their results will be presented at an upcoming science meeting in 2016.

These are just some examples that illustrate to potential of the NEHR model and how it can be used to coordinated and share resources across tribal environmental programs, TCU’s and Native serving mainstream institutions. Please, take the time to browse our website for more information on the Center’s activities. If you have any questions, please use the “Contact” button!