Using art to save lives

Yellow dots circle about the woman, framing her against a murky background. Her arms rest idly by her sides as she gazes askance. The portrait “Grandmother,” by artist Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (a member of the Seminole, Muscogee, and Diné tribes), is one of many pieces created by well-known Native American artists featured on public health posters throughout the nation.

The posters are part of a campaign by Native People for Cancer Control, based at the University of Washington, to raise cancer awareness and promote cancer-preventive measures to decrease health disparities in the Native community. By leveraging the appeal of art, a traditional tool for learning, the group hopes that the Native Art for Cancer Project will close what has been a persistent gap in public health.

“It’s a great way to start the conversation on cancer topics,” said Carrie Nass, program director for Partnerships for Native Health (PNH).

To date, more than 7,000 of the posters have been distributed nationally.

The posters feature basic information on cancer and its simple preventive measures like screenings, vaccination, and leading a healthy lifestyle. Well-known Native artists who work in a variety of mediums including beadwork, photography, oil painting, drawing, and weaving have contributed their artwork.

The oldest known piece of Native art — a bone carving of a mammoth or mastodon — dates back 13,000 years. Since then, Native art has come to include both traditional and western elements. Beadwork incorporates western glass and ceramic beads and in the past two centuries, a new branch of Native art developed through photography. Many branches of Native art have traditionally included a functional element — baskets to hold belongings or blankets to keep people warm. By using artwork to promote public health, the Native Art for Cancer Project continues this tradition of functionality.

The project is part of PNH, a program that addresses a wide variety of public health issues in the Native community. PNH began around 12 years ago and was formalized in 2009.

PNH also utilizes art as an interactive tool to raise awareness of public health issues through the Native Comic Book Project. The project teaches youth through comic books.

“To solve health disparities, you have to start with the kids,” said Corinna Tordillos (Northern Cheyenne and Tlingit), a senior majoring in biochemistry and American Indian studies who has been involved with PNH as a student assistant and as a researcher since her freshman year.

By actively engaging the students in the learning process, the project aligns itself with a traditional Native way of learning, thus increasing its effectiveness, said Robyn Pebeahsy (Yakama and Comanche), research assistant for the Native Comic Book Project.

The Native Art for Cancer Project started a decade ago by Steve Charles (Tlingit and Haida), former research coordinator for the Native Art for Cancer Control.

“I felt that bringing posters to communities with compelling art would draw viewers to contemplate the art but, more importantly, to also think about the cancer facts on each poster,” Charles said.

He left his position as curator of Sacred Circle Gallery of American Indian Art, at that time one of the nation’s preeminent Native art galleries, to spearhead the project.

“The artists that I envisioned for the series came on board enthusiastically,” Charles said. “I had developed relationships with Native artists over many years who had exhibitions at the Sacred Circle Gallery.”

In addition to the Native Art for Cancer Project, PNH oversees nearly two dozen research projects that address a wide variety of public health issues including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and women’s health. Throughout a nine-state region that spans north to Alaska, down to Oregon, and into the Rocky Mountain states, PNH seeks to facilitate culturally-sensitive outreach, training, and research programs.

This involves ensuring that information is framed in an accurate and culturally-aware way “that respects the needs of native people and tribal sovereignty,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), a tribal liaison with the Institute of Translational Health Sciences.

PNH grew from a need both to address the health disparities between the target communities and the wider public and do so in a culturally sensitive manner. This need is what prompted the initiation of the Native Art for Cancer Project. The Native community suffers from higher incidences of and death rates from certain types of cancers.

Finding a solution to the disparity involves more than public outreach, however. Additional research must be done.

But research conducted as it has been in the past can do more harm than good, Echo-Hawk said.

Echo-Hawk said the harmful research studies experienced by the Havasupai Indians inspired her to work for PNH. In the 1990s, the Havasupai of Arizona gave blood samples to researchers at Arizona State University, believing that the blood samples would be used specifically for research into diabetes, a condition that plagued the community. However, the blood samples were then used for a series of studies that stigmatized the community — such as studies on the incidence of schizophrenia and inbreeding in the community — and contradicted their religious beliefs. One study traced the Havasupi back to Asia even though their creation story tells that they originated in the Grand Canyon.

“It reverberated throughout Indian country,” Echo-Hawk said. “I felt a lot of grief. Who I am is tied into my culture and spiritual beliefs. To have such an attack on them was very impactful on me.”

Through her work at PNH, Echo-Hawk seeks to prevent similarly hurtful experiences.Image

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