Looking to the Future
HMS Native American and Indigenous students, faculty remember past, look ahead
HMS Native American and Indigenous students, faculty remember past, look ahead
The Harvard College Charter of 1650 established the Harvard Corporation and outlined how the College, and later the University, were to be governed. It committed the school to “the education of the English and Indian youth of this country.”
The first brick building constructed in Harvard Yard was the Indian College, built around 1655, which housed five Native students. The Indian College would be short-lived, however, and in 1670 the building became dedicated to printing.
“That is a story that every Native person at Harvard knows,” said Joseph Patrick Gone, professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“It reflects not only Harvard’s initial, original commitment to educate Indian people; it also accentuates and highlights the failure of Harvard to follow through on that through most of its history,” said Gone, who serves as faculty director of the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP).
Started 50 years ago as the American Indian Program, HUNAP brings together Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Indigenous students from across Harvard to advocate for Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and around the world.
Today, Native American and Indigenous students and faculty are making vital contributions to HMS, their home communities and the world at large.
Nathan Nakatsuka, an MD/PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program, first became involved with HUNAP as an undergraduate at Harvard. A Native Hawaiian, Nakatsuka found HUNAP to be “a home away from home.”
“HUNAP is a pan-Indigenous organization that has people from all around the world coming to Harvard,” Nakatsuka said.
Meeting members of other Indigenous groups at Harvard, Nakatsuka found certain shared values that connected them, like a dedication to conservation and sustainable environmental practices, a focus on community above the individual, and honoring one’s elders.
“Viewing your history as central to who you are as a person, and viewing your past ancestors and your community as vitally important to who you are as an individual, is really important,” Nakatsuka said.
Nakatsuka has brought his interest in history and shared experiences to his work with ancient DNA in David Reich’s lab at HMS. Nakatsuka has worked on studies of ancient DNA from South Asia and the Americas, including a study of the genomic history of ancient civilizations in the central Andes that has provided insight into the region’s population before European contact.
Nakatsuka hopes his work studying ancient DNA will allow a greater number of Indigenous groups to connect more fully with their own history.
“We worked a lot with archeologists who would translate the research, as well as do it in a culturally appropriate way that is in line with the wishes of the Indigenous groups,” Nakatsuka said. “One of the purposes of this research is to allow people to retell their history and to be proud of their history and to be able to engage with science from their cultural worldview.”
Gabriella Herrera, an MD student at HMS, grew up in California’s Central Valley. Her mother’s family traces its ancestry to a tribe in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
“When my grandparents came to the U.S., they had to put aside a lot of their traditional values and practices because of a lot of discrimination, to the point of not wanting to teach their children Spanish or (Native) languages,” Herrera said. “My mom and I have been trying to reconnect with the stories and histories and practices of our older generation.”
When Herrera came to Harvard as an undergraduate, she got involved with HUNAP as a way to connect with other Native and Indigenous people.
“I learned a lot coming to Harvard and being part of a more tight-knit Indigenous community,” Herrera said. “Being able to hear how different Native communities have been so resilient, and are continuing their own practices and growing their communities today has been really enlightening.”
At HMS, Herrera took part in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Rural Health Leadership Fellowship. The program places early-career physicians in rotations at the Indian Health Service unit in Todd County, South Dakota, home to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. HMS and HSDM students and faculty participate in the program, providing care to a population experiencing high unemployment and mortality rates.
The experience had a significant impact on Herrera’s academic trajectory.
“The fellowship rotation was amazing,” Herrera said. “It’s how I got involved with the research I’m doing now.”
Her research focuses on mortality rates and health outcomes for Native American populations in the region served by the Rosebud Service Unit.
As much as Herrera values her experience with the Rural Health Leadership Fellowship, she knows there are plenty of other opportunities to help Native and Indigenous communities closer to HMS.
“Not everyone has to fly to South Dakota,” she said. “There’s work to be done here in Boston; for example, the burden of COVID-19 in local Native American communities. Native American populations are so often overlooked.”
Victor Lopez-Carmen, a Hunkpati Dakota and Yoeme second-year MD student from the Crow Creek Sioux and Yaqui Tribes, serves as co-president of the Native American Health Organization at HMS (NAHO). He says it is his commitment to serving his community that motivated him to pursue medicine.
“It was instilled in me from a young age that I would use whatever I could at my disposal to give back and contribute to my tribes,” said Lopez-Carmen. “For me, that became medicine. That's what brought me here.”
Lopez-Carmen said his understanding of medicine is informed by his culture and his upbringing in Native communities, and he sees his career in medicine as being about more than just individual health and wellness.
“Traditionally, the roles of the healers in our community weren’t just professional,” he said. “It was a sacred role, to be a healer in the community in all senses of the word. Their example is one that inspires Indigenous medical students.”
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Native and Indigenous communities, with test positivity rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives that are 3.5 times the rate among non-Hispanic white people. Durable health disparities in Native American communities—including elevated rates of diabetes and hypertension—mean Native Americans have been hit especially hard by COVID-19.
Seeing how Native and Indigenous peoples are being affected by COVID-19, Lopez-Carmen felt compelled to help. He started the COVID-19 Indigenous Health Partnership, partnering with Indigenous communities around the world to provide medical supplies, personal protective equipment and translation services.
He also founded the Translations 4 Our Nations project, an initiative to work with Indigenous communities to translate information about COVID-19 and public health guidance into their local languages. The goal was to provide medically accurate and culturally relevant information for Indigenous peoples.
“We made a fact sheet specifically on information for Indigenous youth to protect their elders,” Lopez-Carmen said, as an example of making the resources culturally relevant.
“During the pandemic, one of the primary concerns was that this was disproportionately impacting elders. For Indigenous peoples, that's really quite scary, because our traditions, languages and stories are passed orally. They're not written down. Our elders are our cultural, spiritual and linguistic dictionaries,” he said.
“We say, ‘We have to protect our elders so we can protect our traditions,’ and that's one of the lines that we translated.”
At a local level, Lopez-Carmen has also been working with the City of Boston’s COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force, helping the city address inequities in COVID-19 testing, treatment and data analysis.
Initially the task Force did not include a focus on Native Americans and Indigenous people in Boston, but NAHO petitioned the city to include data on those populations. The task force is currently conducting a survey of Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians in Boston to determine how these communities have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carson Moss, a second-year MD student at HMS, a member of the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma and co-president of NAHO, worries that too often Indigenous populations can be forgotten or overlooked.
“You’ll see a data table, and you won’t see Indigenous people included there,” said Moss. “And the answer is, ‘The sample size is too small.’ There’s an opportunity to put in effort and really get those data sets. I would encourage people to think about how Indigenous peoples are incorporated into certain conversations, especially when you’re talking about health disparities.”
In addition to advocacy, NAHO also organizes events that bring speakers to HMS to discuss issues of importance to Indigenous communities around the world, from health care to climate change. The group also organizes social events in collaboration with other HMS student groups and with HUNAP.
Moss said the NAHO events provide a chance for non-Indigenous students to learn about Indigenous cultures and concerns.
“This is something we invite our non-Indigenous classmates to,” Moss said. “This is an opportunity to share with them a side of Indigenous medicine they may not see otherwise.”
NAHO’s members also reach out to prospective Native and Indigenous students to answer their questions about HMS, life as a medical student and living in Boston.
“One fairly common concern is that people who aren’t from more urban areas are concerned about maintaining a sense of community here,” said Moss. “I’m from California, which has the most tribes of any state in the U.S. and has the largest population of Indigenous peoples. The East Coast just has a lower percentage of Indigenous peoples. That’s kind of a concern—how to maintain the sense of community while we’re here and learn medicine at the same time.”
Nakatsuka sees an opportunity to recruit more Native and Indigenous students to HMS and he regularly attends conferences, such as those sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society or the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, to engage with prospective students.
“Some have difficulty with the fact that they will be away from home for so long,” said Nakatsuka. “I think talking to them about the many opportunities at HMS is effective; letting them know they can be prepared to go back to serve their communities. Also highlighting the accomplishments of people who have gone through Harvard and contributed to their communities, like Yvette Roubideaux,” the former director of the Indian Health Service and an HMS alumna.
Some see more opportunity to develop programs to engage with and nurture high school and college students, creating a pipeline to bring more Native and Indigenous students to HMS and other medical schools.
You could view this whole process of developing a career in medicine as a game, and there is a very sophisticated playbook to it. But no one’s ever given Native students that playbook. So, what we try to do is give them access to that.
The Four Directions Summer Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is one such program. Founded in 1994 by Native American students at HMS, the program brings undergraduates with a commitment to the health of Native American communities to Boston for the summer to provide mentoring, networking and hands-on lab experience under the guidance of HMS faculty. With two-thirds of program alumni having continued on to graduate school, according to alumni survey data, the program has been considered a success.
Thomas Sequist, professor of health care policy at HMS and professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s, has directed the program for 25 years.
A member of the Taos Pueblo tribe, Sequist grew up splitting his time between New York and New Mexico. Few people in his family had attended college, he said, and Sequist felt this lack of guidance when it came time for him to apply to college and medical schools. He hopes the Four Directions Program can provide some of the guidance he missed.
“You could view this whole process of developing a career in medicine as a game, and there is a very sophisticated playbook to it,” Sequist said. “But no one’s ever given Native students that playbook. So, what we try to do is give them access to that.”
Through alumni connections, networking and mentorship, the program continues to affect students’ lives long after they leave.
“We feel like the program is not just a summer experience, but it is a lifelong career mentoring experience,” Sequist said. “The vast majority of our alumni feel like the program did have a substantial impact on their career.”
Lopez-Carmen is an alumnus of the program and thinks back fondly on it.
“That really changed the trajectory for me,” he said. “I think it really helped me to gain the confidence I needed to know that, hey, I can succeed in a lab at Harvard Medical School. I can definitely do this.”
In past years, Native and Indigenous students at Harvard have observed Indigenous Peoples Day with a gathering in Harvard Yard, in front of Matthews Hall, where the Indian College once stood. The day features performances, speeches and cultural activities.
This year, with so much of life interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear what form students’ observances will take. HUNAP invites those interested in taking part in any organized observances to sign up for their listservs.
HMS formally recognized Indigenous Peoples Day in 2017. While Native and Indigenous students and faculty say this is an important step, they say it is only a first step.
“I don't think that we can appreciate just in a single day what it means to have survived everything that happened those hundreds of years ago,” said Herrera.
“The genocide that occurred, the discrimination, the systematic oppression of Native American populations that continues today. I don't think we can really appreciate all of that without taking the time in digestible pieces throughout the year to start to break down the narrative around Native Americans and what happened, what’s going on now and what we can expect for the future,” she said.
One issue facing Native and Indigenous peoples, Gone said, is a lack of visibility.
“Indian people in America are both everywhere and nowhere,” he said. “By everywhere, I mean that we're on the street names or the names of towns and counties, place names all around the nation. We are on commercial products. We are sports team mascots. In that sense Native and Indigenous people are ubiquitous in American popular culture and society. The message of most of that representation is that we're vanished. So, while most Americans are exposed to those representations, the vast majority don't even know any Indian people living today, who are modern people in all walks of life, trying to make up a future for our kids and our descendants as Indian people.”
HUNAP and NAHO encourage everyone to recognize that the land Harvard University now occupies was Native land long before the Charter of 1650 was authored or the College was founded in 1636.
“A land acknowledgment is a recognition of the fact that institutions are built on lands that were some Indigenous peoples’ ancestral territory at some point in history,” Gone explained.
“Through the long work of colonial dispossession of these peoples, there is inadequate recognition of the fact that these lands were—and may even still be in some sense—Native land,” he said.
HMS, Gone pointed out, is built on what was traditionally the land of the Massachusett people.
“Why not go on the web and explore the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag and learn more about their history and their traditions and their modern government and what they're up to,” Gone suggested.
“It doesn't matter where you are, you are on land that was Native land,” Herrera echoed. “These populations were living here before, and, for the most part, they're still there, even if they're not as visible.”
Lopez-Carmen stressed the importance of connecting the historical struggles of Native and Indigenous peoples with the ongoing effort by those same people to achieve justice and equity. He encouraged people to look into ways to help Native and Indigenous peoples and causes.
“People often look and say, ‘All this is in the past,’” Lopez-Carmen said. “But my people, and all Indigenous peoples, still don't have their sacred land. We're still fighting for it. People are being arrested and shot with rubber bullets to protect the sacred mountains where we pray, trying to restore the buffalo to our land. This is something that's definitely not over."