A group of leading researchers on American Indian health issues is leaving the University of Minnesota Duluth to join the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But they aren’t going anywhere.
Researcher Melissa Walls said her team will remain in Duluth as the new Great Lakes hub of Hopkins’ Center for American Indian Health, which conducts public health research and provides outreach programs in 17 states.
While the switch will give the team more visibility and national influence, Walls said her group needed to remain in Minnesota to maintain its connections and credibility.
“You’ve got to be here,” said Walls, who is from International Falls and is a member of the Bois Forte Chippewa and Couchiching First Nation bands. “It’s all predicated on building good relationships.”
Walls, 39, has worked at the Duluth campus for 12 years, amassing multiple federal grants to study health issues such as the prevalence of diabetes and mental illnesses among Indians — and how one condition can influence the other. She has built a team of more than 100, including tribal members, who advise her research efforts.
A new federal grant will allow Walls’ group to test a new, multigenerational approach to preventing diabetes in parents and children in the same household.
Hopkins’ outreach includes Family Spirit, a home visit program to promote maternal and early childhood health, and Respecting the Circle of Life, a teen pregnancy prevention program. Both programs already exist in Minnesota.
Walls said her interest in Johns Hopkins piqued after she completed a visiting professorship in 2016. The organization has an “amazing track record” of using research to set national policy, and she said she wanted to be a part of that and to have Minnesota’s tribes represented. “It was maybe an opportunity to bring the tribal perspective from out here to Hopkins,” she said, “and also to bring that platform from Hopkins over here.”
The Johns Hopkins news release highlighted Walls’ use of community-based participatory research, which requires researchers to spend time in their target communities and to structure their studies based on community input.
“Dr. Walls is making ground-up discoveries to reclaim well-being for the indigenous peoples of North America,” Allison Barlow, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, said in the release. “Her approach will generate findings to advance the entire field of prevention science.”
Minnesota is home to 11 federally recognized tribal groups and about 57,000 people who are Indian. Their health outcomes are, on average, substantially worse than those of most other Minnesotans. The rate of death for non-elderly Indians in the state, for example, is roughly triple the average rate, said the state Department of Health. Nearly one in five Indian adults has diabetes, which is the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group in the state.
Clinical data tracked by Minnesota Community Measurement, a research nonprofit, shows that Indian patients receive poorer medical care as well on measures such as timely cancer screenings.
Walls’ research has focused on social determinants that have contributed to the disparities, such as higher rates of poverty and lack of access to low-cost healthy food. She also has worked with tribal communities to find solutions that instill pride and reintroduce cultural staples such as harvesting and consuming wild rice.
“The headlines are always, ‘We’re sick, drunk and dying young,’ ” Walls said. “We are rewriting the story to show that our communities have solutions to achieve health equity.”