Tribal and university leaders discuss advancing Native American health

a group posing for a photo

Tribal leaders from across Arizona met with University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins at the second annual Tribal Leaders Summit in Phoenix. From left: Gary Alchesay, White Mountain Apache Tribe councilman; Glenn H. Lodge, chairman of the Chemehuevi Tribe executive committee; Terri Honani, executive adviser in the Office of the Chairman for the Hopi Tribe; Robert Miguel, chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community; Robbins; Levi Esquerra, UArizona senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement; Timothy Nuvangyaoma, chairman of the Hopi Tribe; and Milfred Cosen, economic development manager for the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Adam Brooks/College of Medicine – Phoenix

Tribal leaders from across Arizona came together last week to meet with University of Arizona leaders and connect with a host of university programs that support the health and resilience of tribal communities.

The second annual Tribal Leaders Summit was held Thursday and Friday at the Phoenix Bioscience Core, which houses the UArizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. With a theme of "Advancing Tribal Health," the event focused on UArizona Health Sciences programs that support the public health of tribal communities. The summit showcased research for and in partnership with Native American communities, as well as programs that provide tribal students with financial support to pursue medical school or study other health care disciplines.

Robert C. Robbins shaking hands with another person

Robbins met with tribal leaders at a reception on Thursday night, Nov. 3.

Kyle Mittan/University Communications

The university's Office of Native American Advancement and Tribal Engagement, under the leadership of Senior Vice President Levi Esquerra, organized the summit as part of its ongoing work to connect tribal and university leaders to better understand how university resources can serve Native American communities.

Attendees included leaders from the Ak Chin Indian Community, the Hopi Tribe, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe and Gila River Health Care, a health care provider that serves the Gila River Indian Community. Dr. Jill Jim, executive director of the Navajo Nation Department of Health and a member of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board, also attended.

The Tucson area is home to the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui, and the university's main campus resides on the O'odham and Yaqui homelands.

"We need to give tribal leaders, as heads of state, the opportunity to engage with institutions of higher learning, because we play a key role," Esquerra said after the summit. "When these discussions happen, our minds are blown because we can see the opportunities, and then the university isn't doing business as usual – we're actually consulting with and listening to tribes and expanding our resources."

Leaders meeting leaders

After a reception on Thursday evening, the event kicked off in earnest Friday morning with a breakfast roundtable that allowed tribal leaders to meet directly with University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins.

Timothy Nuvangyaoma speaking with Robert C. Robbins

Timothy Nuvangyaoma, chairman of the Hopi Tribe, speaks with Robbins at the summit's president's breakfast roundtable on Friday morning.

Adam Brooks/College of Medicine – Phoenix

"The bottom line of it all has always been how can the University of Arizona serve your nation, your people, your students better than we're doing now?" Robbins said at the opening of the session. "In the five years that I've been at the U of A, we've made progress, but we still have a lot of work to do."

The wide-ranging roundtable discussion touched on grant partnerships between tribes and the university, ways the university could help tribal educators expand programming in science, technology, engineering and math, and – in line with the summit's theme – how to help tribal communities more easily access health care.

Several tribal leaders showed interest in bringing UArizona microcampuses to their communities, similar to one that opened in September to serve the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Timothy Nuvangyaoma, chairman of the Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona, suggested that a microcampus with a clinic might be able to provide nursing students hands-on experience while helping to address a gap in health care access that the rural tribe has struggled to overcome, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Milfred Cosen, the economic development manager for the White Mountain Apache Tribe, also expressed interest in university resources that could help his tribe expand its health care workforce for a new tribal hospital in development.

Several tribal chairmen said they were grateful for the opportunity to meet with the president.

"Historically, Native American tribes have been told a lot of things and, sadly, they're not followed through on," Nuvangyaoma told Robbins. "I don't see that under your leadership."

Cultural competency 'not just buzzwords' for UArizona Health Sciences programs

Michael D. Dake, senior vice president for health sciences, also addressed tribal leaders during the summit, highlighting three new degree programs designed to serve tribal communities. The new programs in the physical therapy, physician assistant and nurse-midwifery fields are designed to expand access to care for patients in Arizona's diverse rural and urban communities.

Dake said health care professionals often emphasize "culturally competent care" – the idea of effectively operating in different cultural contexts and altering practices to reach different cultural groups.

"At the University of Arizona, these are not just buzzwords – it's part of our mission; we take it very seriously," he said. "We're passionate about educating the next generation of health care professionals to provide compassionate, culturally competent care and sensitive care to healthier communities, especially our tribal communities in Arizona."

Gary Alchesay and Milfred Cosen

Gary Alchesay (left) and Milfred Cosen with the White Mountain Apache Tribe use an ultrasound machine on a manikin during a tour of the College of Medicine – Phoenix's Center for Simulation and Innovation.

Adam Brooks/College of Medicine – Phoenix

Tribal leaders at the summit also had the opportunity to meet directly with representatives from other UArizona Health Sciences programs with components that serve tribal communities. Those programs included:

Tribal leaders also toured the College of Medicine – Phoenix's Center for Simulation and Innovation, a state-of-the-art set of labs and training spaces that provide real-world training to medical students. The tour highlighted the health care training that prospective tribal students could receive at UArizona.

To close the summit, an awards luncheon presented by the UArizona Indigenous Resilience Center honored the work of four recipients working to make a positive impact in tribal communities to create healthy environments.

Esquerra, in his closing remarks, reminded summit attendees to turn the day's discussions into action.

"If nothing happens and you wait until next year, we didn't get anywhere," he said. "Build on those conversations you've had and commit yourself to step up and make something happen."