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Culture as Medicine

Naomi BenderCulture as Medicine. What does this mean exactly? In my own perspective of Culture as Medicine, it is not only a holistic view of how indigenous people view and practice healing, but it can also reference how we teach and prepare future healers, gather and prepare foods and medicines, live traditionally and spiritually, support our families, and how we serve our communities. For centuries, indigenous communities, elders, and healers, have mentored, fostered, and created learning environments that fused scientific understandings with and through the environment such as plants, foods, water, animals, and also traditions, ceremonies, and spiritually. These teachings were, and are still important, because they provide an understanding of our place as healers in a world where culture is at the center of all we do. Thus, Culture as Medicine, is highlighted here in the stories and experiences you will read, because it has been, and will continue to be, the center of what we do.   

Allin p’unchay! Good day! I am Naomi M. Bender, Ph.D., Indigenous Quechua (northern Andean Mountain region of Peru), and I have the distinct honor and privilege of serving as the Director of Washington State University’s Native American Health Sciences (NAHS), the new Center for Native American Health (CNAH), and the tribal nations of the Pacific Northwest, since October of 2018. Our office of NAHS and the new CNAH are located on the WSU Health Science campus in Spokane, along the Spokane River, and upon the original homelands of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. 

Since its inception in 2007, WSU NAHS has been blessed to run both the Na-ha-shnee Summer Institute that serves Native American (NA) youth interested in health occupations, and an annual academic retention program that has helped support the graduation of almost 70 NA nurses. In the last two years however, we have seen a robust expansion of our work with students, tribal nations, education and health care systems, and community stakeholders locally, regionally, and nationally, that has increased our programmatic capacity from 2 to 13 pathway programs meant to recruit and support NA health students. Several of these programs are collaboratively developed, funded, and managed between NAHS and partners in the colleges of medicine, nursing, pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, veterinary medicine, and Native Programs in Pullman. With the colleges seeing some of their largest increases in the number of NA students they have matriculated, we at NAHS are thrilled to now serve and culturally support 54 NA students enrolled in these colleges and another 180+ NA pre-health students system wide. These increased numbers of NA students are in large part due to the continuous collaborative pathway efforts of each of the health sciences colleges and our office, but moreover, their commitment to expanding the diverse workforce through their admissions processes. To date, NAHS has now supported almost 90 NA health science graduates. 

In addition to being responsible for helping the health science colleges recruit the number of NA’s entering the health care workforce, the mission and work of NAHS and CNAH, have expanded to: 

1) culturally embedding and teaching indigenous healing perspectives through newly developed curriculum and clinical education modalities to counterbalance western forms of medical and health education with traditional understandings and perspectives, toward equitable Indigenous patient care, and 

2) providing a space for tribal community health initiatives through our land-grant mission focused in planning, training, facilitation, support, and collaboration with tribal nation partners and affiliates. 

The priorities for NAHS and our Center are not only new and unique to WSU, but also across institutions of higher education and other health and allied health programs throughout the United States. A particular benchmark of NAHS and the Center’s expansion is our vision to balance the long-held primary focus of western medicine’s approach to patient care education with bridging indigenous frameworks and perspectives of healing, so they may co-exist and better serve our people. Ideally, the training of culturally safe practices should be done early in the educational phases of career preparation, where unintentional harms through communication and practice can be better understood, acknowledged, be made aware of, and pivoted toward cultural proficiencies of care. 

An exhilarating year at NAHS, we, along with the WSU NAHS Tribal Advisory Board and community partners, opened the doors to our new Center for Native American Health, on August 6, 2021. This was a beautiful day that helped launch years of preparation, vision, and work from those before me and other members of our NAHS team, who truly laid the foundation for what NAHS is today. The CNAH is a culturally centered home away from home for our students, and features three student smart rooms, a six-person computer lab, staff and faculty offices, a welcoming kitchen and event space, student storage areas, healing areas, and a clinical simulation space for students to practice their learned skills. 

Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank the generous and continued support from each of our donors, the Empire Health Foundation for their continued commitment and partnership in all we do, Bank of America toward the expansion of changing healing practices, our Indigenous healer and educator cohorts who walk beside us daily to complete this work that our ancestors have laid before us, our WSU NAHS Tribal Advisory Board and elders for all you instill and support us with, and all of the other educational institutions, health care systems, and community partners along the way. Without each of you, we would not be able to provide these unique and impactful scopes of change. 

Sulpayki! Thank you! I hope you enjoy this newsletter and we hope to continue walking alongside you.

Naomi M. Bender

“We acknowledge the land on which we sit and occupy today as the traditional homelands of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. We take this opportunity to thank the original caretakers of this land.”

2022 NAHS Newsletter Cover Image

Click to read the 2021 Native American Health Sciences Newsletter


Newsletter Cover
Click to read a 2020 PDF version.

Thank You to Our Partners:

  • WSU Native American Health Sciences Tribal Advisory Board
  • Empire Health Foundation
  • Bank of America
  • Spokane Tribe of Indians
  • WSU Colleges of Medicine, Nursing, and Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and WSU Native Programs and WSU IREACH 
  • Lonnie Nelson, WSU College of Nursing, Assoc. Prof.
  • Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board 
  • Portland Area Indian Health Service
  • OHSU School of Medicine Northwest Native Center of Excellence
  • University of California Davis School of Medicine
  • Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians
  • Association of American Indian Physicians
  • University of North Dakota Indians Into Medicine Alumni
  • Margo Hill, JD Spokane Tribe of Indians
  • EWU Area Health Education Center
  • Kaiser Permanente