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American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month Marked

Photos by Lew Bass

The NIH American Indian/Alaska Native Employee Council (AIANEC) sponsored the first campus observance of American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month on Nov. 16. Many institutes and the Indian Health Service collaborated to develop the program.

It began with an invocation by Clayton Old Elk, a Crow tribal member from Montana and an IHS employee who explained that as a "town crier," he is responsible for praising the participants of such a gathering and thanking NIH for hosting the event.

Clayton Old Elk, of the Crow Tribe of Montana, did the opening and closing invocations.

The theme was "Leading the Way to Good Medicine." A variety of speakers presented information, including how American Indians may first have arrived in what eventually became the United States.

Among the lecturers was Dr. Jared Jobe, a member of the Cherokee Nation who works at NHLBI; Dr. Clifton Poodry, a member of the Seneca Nation, who works at NIGMS; Leo Nolan, a member of the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk tribe, from IHS; and Dr. Everett Rhoades, a member of the Kiowa Nation, former IHS director and currently director, Native American Prevention Research Center, College of Public Health, University of Oklahoma, and adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma.

Topics included the responsibility of HHS to consult with tribes on matters affecting them; while NIH still has more to do in terms of meeting the legal implications of consulting with tribes, many ICs have been very aggressive in reaching out to tribal communities regarding Indian health. Health disparities are also a continuing problem for American Indians and Alaska Natives. The speakers contrasted mortality, morbidity and other health status differences between Indians and the general population. The leading cause of death for Indians is heart disease, followed by injury, then cancer.

American Indian and Alaska native contributions to U.S. society have been numerous and significant, ranging from the use and development of herbal medicines, to participation in research studies that led to the development of vaccines for hepatitis B and influenza.

Brian Hammil (Ho-Chunk) performs the hoop dance.

The program included the presentation of award-winning artwork, flute and drum music, and dancing. These emphasized the themes of healing, spirituality, and reverence for nature and for the community.

A number of common misperceptions about American Indians were dispelled simply, and with good humor:

  • "Chief" was never a term of Indian parlance; rather, it was first used by Europeans who came to this country and decided that the feather war bonnets American Indians wore resembled the hats of their European "chiefs."

  • Many Indian tribes are matriarchal, with a female designated as the senior decision-maker for the tribe.

  • "Winnebago" literally means flat, stagnant water.

  • Indian beadwork evolved over time. Initially, Indians used seeds until they met Europeans and began trading with them to acquire their beads. The primary source of the beads is Czechoslovakia.

To learn more about the program email the NIH American Indian/Alaska Native Employee Council at, or call 402-3681.

Eldred Matt (Apache/Blackfeet/Flathead) performs as a Grass Dancer.

Ho-Chunk in his role as Eagle Dancer, accompanied by musician Albert "Moontee" Sinquah

Albert "Moontee" Sinquah (Hopi/Choctaw) performs a Northern Traditional dance.

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