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Tribe, UW hope to find science in healing methods

SUQUAMISH — For thousands of years, Native Americans have believed that their culturally-based traditional methods of healing have helped them live healthier lifestyles.

While the Suquamish Tribe practices this belief by participating in an annual canoe journey, such remedies have yet to be scientifically proven.

But, in partnership with the University of Washington, the tribe hopes to show, through clinical studies, that its ancestral ways can help troubled Native Americans.

For the next three years, the tribe and UW will sponsor a project called “Healing of the Canoe,” in which the two groups will work together to gather information from the tribe about its culturally-based traditions. Instead of university research staff shouldering all the studies, both parties will work together under the guidance and oversight of the tribe.

Earlier this year, the National Institute of Health awarded the University of Washington a $1.4 million grant for the project, with the Suquamish Tribe as a subcontractor of the funding.

The goals of the three-year project are to plan a community-based intervention or prevention program rooted in tribal values and traditions; put the plan into action within the Suquamish community; and evaluate the program to see if it is helpful in promoting wellness while reducing health problems for the Suquamish people.

The first year will be primarily be spent gathering information from the community through interviews, focus groups and meetings, as well as allowing UW staff to establish a relationship with the tribe, identify community health issues, strengths, resources and traditions and values. Years two and three will be spent testing, evaluating and documenting the developed curriculum.

The tribal canoe journey is the metaphor for the project, as it is an event that some Suquamish members have participated in and found to be helpful in getting their lives back on track after certain life struggles. It teaches members traditional protocol and helps members learn about themselves physically and spiritually and how to lead a clean and sober lifestyle.

“It’s been very healing for our people,” said Chuck Wagner, the tribe’s lead administrator for the behavioral health portion of the tribe’s wellness program.

The tribe uses the canoe journey as a part of its cultural teachings, particularly educating the youth how to respect themselves, their elders and their ancestry. However, these practices and their results have never been proven to scientifically work.

“It’s worked for tens of thousands of years but no one ever wrote it down,” he said.

A similar curriculum has been developed already with the Seattle Indian Health Board, working with Natives Americans from different tribes and in an urban setting. But the Suquamish project is a first of its kind as it will focus solely on the people within Port Madison Reservation and the canoe journey lifestyle, plus allow tribal members to have a strong voice in the project.

It’s also introducing a new way of how academia studies tribal culture. Historically, when academic institutions have tried gathering researching from tribes, the relationships between the two parties were not been positive. In some cases, conventional research methods have not respected the native way of doing things, said Lisa Thomas, the project’s co-investigator and a research scientist with UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

With the Suquamish Tribe, the relationship is expected to be different and much more positive, as the tribe will have just as much input on the project as the research staff. In fact, most of the project’s staff will be hired from within the tribe. Thomas will be working with Suquamish tribal member Robin Sigo and Coast Salish and Kanaka Maoli member C. Truth Griffeth. The staff is currently seeking a youth tribal member, age 16-23, to fill the youth peer educator position.

In the end, Thomas hopes the research from the Port Madison Reservation project will be able to be applied to other tribal groups around the country.

“(We hope to develop) a model of a project and a process that other tribal communities can use to partner with universities to do research that is community-based and culturally grounded and is respectful of the community’s values and traditions,” she said.

The project’s principal investigator, Dennis Donovan, said the entire process will be a learning experience for all parties involved.

“We hope (it will) be a two-way process of learning and sharing,” he said.

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