Montana State University

MSU and Crow Nation partner to address chronic illness using cultural strengths

November 21, 2016 -- By Michael Becker for the MSU News Service

Alma McCormick, left, executive director of the nonprofit Messengers for Health, and Suzanne Held, community health professor in the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development, have received a five-year grant to help Native Americans better manage chronic illness. The collaborative project, known as the Báa nnilah Project, will work with members of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation in southeast Montana. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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BOZEMAN — A 20-year partnership between Montana State University and members of the Crow Nation recently received a grant to improve chronic illness management.

The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund the Báa nnilah Project, which is a collaboration between MSU and the nonprofit Messengers for Health in Crow Agency. The project will work with members of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation in southeast Montana.

“In Montana, there’s a 15-year mean life expectancy difference between whites and Native Americans,” said Suzanne Held, community health professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Development and the MSU lead on the project.

That means Native Americans with heart or kidney disease, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, for example, die younger than whites with the same maladies.

Held and McCormick started working together in 1996 on ways to help Crow women get screened for breast and cervical cancer and formed Messengers for Health, a project that was supported by a research grant from the American Cancer Society. In order to develop this new program McCormick, a member of the Crow tribe, led Messengers for Health community meetings and interviewed community members with chronic illness to listen to their stories and better understand, from within, what makes it easier and what makes it more difficult to manage their conditions.

Báa nnilah’s approach arose from what community members shared in the interviews and involves mentors from within the community who are, themselves, successfully managing chronic illness. Trained and armed with information and culturally based strategies, those mentors will lead meetings with other illness sufferers to talk through ways to cope with illness, forge better relationships with health care providers, remain physically active, get adequate nutrition and generally solve problems.

“We’re creating places that are safe that have hope. Hope is a huge thing for people. We’re creating connections and support,” Held said. “When people feel more safety and hope and connectedness, they're able to take care of themselves and each other better.”

"This particular intervention is based on Crow cultural strengths, including how advice and stories are passed down through generations," McCormick said, adding that the project’s name reflects that: “Báa nnilah” translates to advice or instructions for life that are received from others, often in a story form. If one listens and applies this advice, it will keep us on the right path.

McCormick said after Messengers’ success raising awareness for cancer screenings, they decided to continue the partnership and expand the work, forming the local nonprofit McCormick now heads (see messengersforhealth.org).

“Crow women overcame cultural taboos regarding cancer and began cancer screening. Crow men were also positively impacted, and this new project will address the health of both men and women,” McCormick said.

"We're in a position that we've established in the community with trust. We were here; we were sustainable. People felt they could confide in us," McCormick said.

Respect for the communities in which they work is tantamount, both women said.

“It's understood always that there are strengths in communities and that communities really have solutions to the problems within them, rather than having external people come in and say they know what should be done here,” McCormick said.

Báa nnilah is currently planning the content for its mentor gatherings, training mentors and recruiting a few more. Held and McCormick meet monthly with a community board of advisers.

Held said there may be a chance to spread the successful information and strategies to other tribes, and she and McCormick have traveled across the country to speak about their past community-based success with cancer screenings.

"The community-based research approach has brought to life our own cultural strengths," McCormick said. "It is an equal partnership when it's applied appropriately. Its partners come together and acknowledge and respect each others' expertise."

Contact: Suzanne Held, (406) 994-6321 or suzanne@montana.edu