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Oklahoma State University professor studies health inequities in Indigenous populations

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

Many American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities experience high rates of health inequities including tobacco-related health conditions, alcohol and substance use disorders, suicide deaths, and more recently, negative impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic. These health inequities have catastrophic mental health and public health impacts; yet, these research areas remain largely understudied among AI/AN populations.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Ashley Cole to learn more about existing prevention and intervention efforts to improve the health of AI/AN communities.


Dr. Ashley Cole
COLE Research Lab
Dr. Ashley Cole

ROBINSON: As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, Dr. Ashley Cole has a personal connection to her research. Its focus is health promotion, health inequities and health behaviors among American Indian, Alaska Native and Indigenous populations.

COLE: I was always curious about why there's such high rates of substance use disorder, suicide deaths, mental health conditions among Native American populations. And so that is the kind of narrative that gets told a lot in the media, a lot about pathology and what is wrong with these communities.

I also was always interested in positive psychology. So really understanding what is going well with people. What are people doing well? What can we learn from communities? And as I started studying more about Native American history and contemporary Native American communities, really learning that the narrative in the media doesn't actually map onto what's currently happening. Not always. So there’s a lot of positive things we can learn from Native communities.

ROBINSON: Why do Native American and Alaska Native communities experience high rates of health inequities?

COLE: So, a lot of it traces back to systemic issues, things all the way back to colonization and historical trauma being forcibly removed from traditional homelands, things like the Trail of Tears or what's referred to as the Trail of Death in Potawatomi culture.

Many Native American children, even up until the 70s, were forcibly removed from their parents and forced to go to boarding schools where they would assimilate them into more European Westernized cultures. And so that's where a lot of the current health inequities can be traced back to.

ROBINSON: Dr. Cole believes creating policies to help better serve Native American, Alaska Native, and Indigenous populations is essential to improving their health care. Other prevention and intervention methods rely on the community.

COLE: The best practices and best interventions are actually community-driven, and community led. So anything that involves community based participatory research practices or CBPR, or community engaged research where it's really the community members as partners of the research, really telling researchers what they need and what interventions and strategies will best help their community, whatever it may be that they're facing.

Part of it goes from kind of thinking of a systems level perspective, thinking about having more funding and resources from the government, through tribal healthcare, Indian Health Services and all the way from even smaller scale training and educating Native American students on ways that they can get involved in becoming a future healthcare provider or professional or educator or researcher, and kind of ways that they can better help their own communities.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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