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Vol. LXVI, No. 1
January 3, 2014
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Healing Power of Storytelling
NIH Observes Native American Heritage Month

Dr. Brenda Manuelito of nDigiDreams

Dr. Brenda Manuelito of nDigiDreams

When we hear the crows’ parley or the dog’s bark, we’re reminded that animals communicate.

But we humans are the storytelling animals.

Long before Europeans came, Native Americans were telling stories to preserve their cultures, link the generations and explain how everything in Creation is connected. Stories had—and still have—sacred meaning.

The story of how narrative promotes the health and well-being of Native communities drew a large and diverse crowd to Lipsett Amphitheater recently for “Healing Our Community through Narrative: The Power of Storytelling.”

Speakers were Dr. Ted Mala, director of traditional healing at the Alaska Natives Medical Center and director of tribal relations for Alaska’s Southcentral Foundation; and Drs. Brenda Manuelito and Carmella Rodriguez from nDigiDreams, LLC. The program was co-sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management and the trans-NIH Native American/Alaska Native communications and information work group.

A long-term friend of NIH with service to the Fogarty board, the Council of Public Representatives and NLM, Mala is an Iñupiaq Eskimo and the first male Alaska Native physician. He began with the love story of his Native father and Russian mother, how by age 7 he was orphaned and then survived a state boarding school where “I may have been raised by wolves,” he said. “I give you all this as prologue to different Native Americans. We’ve all had a different journey.”

Of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes, almost half are in Alaska. Mala said he would not dwell on the stark health disparities among Native peoples: “The most important part of the story is...how we stood up and fought against it and did something about it...We discovered something called Nuka.”

“Nuka”—a Native word for a large, strong, living structure—is the name given to the health care system Southcentral Foundation created in 1982. Managed and owned by and for Alaska Native people, SCF’s Nuka System of Care offers one-stop health care for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness.

Normally, by federal statute and by custom, the Indian Health Service provides health care to tribal members. But, as Mala explained, “the government said, ‘Okay, we know what we’re doing is not that great. So you go do it yourselves.’ So we’re the first ones in the nation, that I know of, that took over our own health care.”

The SCF Nuka System now has 58,000 “customer-owners,” 1,600 employees and sees 2,000 patients a day. It offers a full-service hospital, primary care and specialty clinics, health education and home-based services. Mala is in charge of integrated care, which includes traditional healing practices such as storytelling. The focus is on building relationships and sharing responsibility for one’s health.

Dr. Brenda Manuelito (l) and Dr. Carmella Rodriguez learned the art of digital storytelling to explore stories of survival and hope.

Dr. Brenda Manuelito (l) and Dr. Carmella Rodriguez learned the art of digital storytelling to explore stories of survival and hope.

Photos: Ernie Branson

“Some of you know the Baldridge [National Quality Award],” he said. “We’re the first Native American group to win it…We have tribes and people all over the world coming to look at what we’re doing.

“As one great country, we need to heal each other,” he continued. “We’ll design together and go on this journey together and this is really the success story that I want you to hear.”

Meanwhile, as NIH worked with Native communities to develop information portals, many user groups asked for these to be enhanced with stories. NIH tapped Manuelito and Rodriguez, co-founders of nDigiDreams, LLC, a training company specializing in instructional technology and digital storytelling (see sidebar).

Since 2008, Manuelito and Rodriguez have been teaching community-based digital storytelling workshops and have co-created 1,200 digital stories with 80 tribes in 15 states. In addition to their ongoing collaboration with NLM, they have now expanded to federally funded programs within CDC, SAMHSA and other agencies.

“We are creating an indigenous storytelling movement and we’re planting seeds of healing and hope through first-person narratives,” said Manuelito. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Manuelito and is Diné, or Navajo.

She and Rodriguez, who also has ancestral ties to the Navajo, teach intergenerational digital storytelling workshops throughout Indian country. They showed several 3- to 5-minute clips created, with their help, by the storytellers. These describe turning points in the narrators’ lives.

Here’s how they work: Folks from 8 to 82 are encouraged to brainstorm in a story circle, then taught to write and edit scripts. Rodriguez audiorecords the digital storytellers who make their own musical tracks and provide still images for voiceovers. (One traditional drummer and singer used Rodriguez’s car, the quietest spot available, for a recording studio.) A local screening rounds out the process.

Their current research includes examining the efficacy of storytelling in programs of recovery.

Dr. Ted Mala, an Iñupiaq Eskimo, described “Nuka,” a Native word for a large, strong, living structure.

Dr. Ted Mala, an Iñupiaq Eskimo, described “Nuka,” a Native word for a large, strong, living structure.

“The Anishnaabek Healing Circle Access to Recovery Program has made a service code for digital storytelling to include it as one of their services available for recovery patients,” said Rodriguez. This program is funded by SAMHSA.

One current application is educating victims of violence about a federal assistance program.

“Our children score off the charts for the number of adverse childhood experiences,” according to a Montana digital storyteller in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Victim Assistance Program. “Seventy-five percent are now suffering extremely high levels of unresolved trauma.”

“I am looking at the micro perspective,” Manuelito said, “in the making of the digital stories, the journey an individual takes…In some pilot research we did last week, we documented physical and emotional changes for several individuals who went through the digital storytelling process.

“There was a 74-year-old elder in the Indian community,” she continued, “and she told a beautiful story about healing from grief and through the making of her digital story you could see her standing taller and smiling broader. I walk in both worlds, like Dr. Mala, and I know the importance of evidence-based practices and information. We [Rodriguez and I] are going back into a doctoral program with all the work we’re doing to help build these programs.”

She described how one of the workshop participants gave them eagle feathers and said: “‘These are because of the work that you’re doing.’

“And as a Native person,” Manuelito said, “that’s my evidence-based information that we’re doing good work.”
The videocast is archived at http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=13318.

NLM Opens Traveling Exhibition, ‘Native Voices’

Visitors and news media explore NLM’s traveling exhibition Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness. The exhibition opened recently at Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, ND, on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Visitors and news media explore NLM’s traveling exhibition Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness. The exhibition opened recently at Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, ND, on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Photo: Adam Shapiro

In the heart of North Dakota’s Indian country, people are exploring the National Library of Medicine exhibition Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness.

A traveling version of Native Voices, a companion to the large exhibition in the library’s rotunda, recently opened at a tribal college in Fort Totten, ND. The exhibition honors the Native tradition of oral history by featuring a collection of interviews with Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Visitors can listen and learn Native concepts of health and medicine and explore the relationship between wellness, illness and cultural life.

Cankdeska Cikana Community College, chartered by the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, is the first stop for the traveling exhibition. During exhibition opening events, college president Dr. Cynthia Lindquist, who was an advisor on the Native Voices project, said, “It showcases role models—tribal leaders, tribal elders, spiritual people and medicine people from across the country.”

NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg said, “Native American people have much to teach us about health, prevention of illness and managing life.” He told the opening-day audience he has a hidden agenda—he’s hoping the exhibition encourages more Native Americans to enter health professions.

The traveling exhibition consists of iPads filled with interviews as well as visual displays. Content is divided into themes including the role the individual plays in his or her health; the impact of the community; respect for nature and tradition; and the intersection of traditional healing and western medicine. After North Dakota, the exhibition will travel to sites in Alaska, Hawaii, Oklahoma and other locations nationwide.

While the exhibition includes interviews from across the country, a companion project funded by NLM gives members of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation the chance to add their voices and share poignant, personal stories of healing and hope. In the days before the exhibition, eight people attended a workshop and learned the art of digital storytelling from Drs. Brenda Manuelito and Carmella Rodriguez, co-founders of nDigiDreams, a consulting and training company.

With their “hands and heart,” as Manuelito says, participants crafted scripts, provided pictures, voice and music and edited them together under nDigiDreams tutelage. The end result is powerful stories on topics that include suicide prevention, alcoholism and life lessons passed down from relatives.

Manuelito says the storytellers have gotten positive feedback. “They say they have people running up to them and hugging them because their stories are stories of survival and hope.”—Shana Potash



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