On August 17, Spero Manson, Ph.D., addressed how place can shape Native Americans’ identities and health. As a medical anthropologist, Manson serves as a bridge between the two worlds of tribal research and environmental health sciences, according to Symma Finn, Ph.D., who introduced him. Finn, an NIEHS health scientist administrator, is also a medical anthropologist.
Manson’s talk, “Place, Culture, and Health: Risk and Protection in Native Americans,” was part of the Keystone Science Lecture Seminar Series.
Notions of self and place
Drawing from his experiences with American Indian and Alaska Native communities, Manson challenged the audience to push the boundaries of how they think about place. “I want you to join me in this journey to understand place in a much broader, more symbolic, and more meaningful fashion than simply the public features of place,” he said.
Manson stated that understanding the cultural construction of the social self is essential for understanding Native people and their relationship to place. Many Native people view themselves in a sociocentric manner, he said, explaining that their identities are shaped by factors such as home, community, and faith. Manson illustrated that notion by telling a story by way of example.
“I was in the presence of an older Hopi woman who was making a basket,” he said. “It was constructed in a series of beautifully colored concentric circles.” Manson quoted her description. “The circle at the heart of this represents my creator, surrounded by the world, then next my community, then my family, and then me. I am the sum of these parts.”
He pointed out that the woman’s understanding of each circle stood in powerful contrast to the western egocentric view, which places self at the center.
Potential loss of place linked to suffering
Through a series of stories, Manson illustrated how re-location or loss of place can affect the mental and physical health of Native people. One story involved the planned relocation of the Yavapai people from their reservation in Arizona, to make room for the proposed Orme Dam. According to Manson, the Yavapai actively opposed the dam and turned out in huge numbers at a public hearing.
“They explained that they loved their land, how connected they were to their land, and how excruciating it would be to be removed from it,” Manson said. “Losing their land would be like betraying their ancestors.”
The Yavapai were successful, and the dam was not built. However, a study conducted immediately afterward found that simply the threat of losing their homeland correlated significantly with increased psychological distress and use of medical services. According to Manson, this distress was comparable to the death of a loved one and is still evident 50 years later.
Renewed connection, improved health
In contrast, reconnecting with place can improve health within Native communities, in which certain diseases, such as diabetes, have become epidemic. “Whereas life expectancy has increased for all other major segments of American society, it has decreased among American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Manson said.
Among the Chickasaw in Oklahoma, a successful diabetes prevention program lowered the risk for diabetes. Along with supporting dietary changes, the program encourages participants to exercise by walking on renovated nature trails. A phone app highlights points of interest related to medicinal plants, indigenous foods, and historical stories meaningful to the tribe.
“There were really substantial losses in weight, which were maintained over time…. And part of this was from reconnecting these participants with place and community,” said Manson.
Questions from the audience, which included Native American researchers who came to NIEHS for the talk, touched on scientific approaches that take into account the needs of local communities. The NIEHS Research to Action program, coordinated by Finn, is one example.
“I’m so impressed with the work here at NIEHS, by Symma and others,” Manson said in closing. He emphasized the importance of an explicit focus on the research process, not only disseminating findings, but applying the work to everyday life.
(Emily Mesev is an Intramural Research Training Award postbaccalaureate fellow in the NIEHS Inflammation, Immunity, and Disease Laboratory.)