Montana State University

MSU receives $6.5 million grant for health research partnerships with Montana tribes

November 16, 2007 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Alma McCormick of Hardin, left, co-director of Messengers for Health on the Crow Reservation, takes women's health education to those places frequented by the women of her tribe. The Messengers project, which is a partnership between MSU and the Crow tribe, was a model for a $6.5 million grant that MSU received from the National Institutes of Health that will allow researchers to partner with Montana Indian tribes to develop health initiatives desired by the tribes. Photo by Kelly Gorham for MSU's Mountains and Minds magazine.    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Montana State University has received a $6.5 million grant to develop partnerships that will address health disparities in Montana's Indian communities.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded the five-year grant to fund the Center for Native
Health Partnerships at MSU. The funds will allow partnerships to be developed between Native American communities and researchers.

The center's pilot projects will include research into men's health disparities on the Crow reservation, water and food contamination on the Crow and Ft. Belknap Reservations, indoor environmental asthma risk factors for children on the Blackfeet Reservation, and prevention of Type II diabetes among Crow and Blackfeet women diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

The center will also support an established partnership between members of the Crow tribe and MSU microbiologist Tim Ford focusing on cancer risks associated with contaminated water and food.

"The Center's goal is to decrease health disparities of Native Americans in Montana through research partnerships," said Linda Hyman, MSU's vice-provost for the Division of Health Sciences and principal investigator of the new NIH grant.

The new center hinges on a technique called community-based participatory research (CBPR), a research method in which community members and researchers work together on research projects from the inception of the idea to publication of findings. This collaborative approach differs from other forms of research that typically involve a researcher bringing a project into a community and making it fit.

An example of CBPR in Montana, and one that in part inspired the new center, is Messengers for Health on the Crow Reservation. Messengers for Health, which has received $2.3 million in grants from the American Cancer Society, utilizes Crow women and traditional tribal communication networks to educate the tribe about cervical cancer. Messengers was developed in 1996 by Suzanne Christopher, an MSU professor of health and human development, Alma Knows His Gun McCormick, co-director of Messengers, and other Crow women. Christopher and McCormick have teamed up on eight publications and a score of national presentations about conducting CBPR in under-represented communities.

"Crow men approached Messengers' staff to begin a partnership addressing Crow men's health disparities," said Christopher, who is also a co-principal investigator of the new NIH grant. "We hope to change the way that research has historically been conducted with tribal nations by bringing researchers and communities together to establish trust, share power, and foster co-learning while we address community-identified needs and health problems."

"The center will facilitate partnerships between researchers and reservation communities to develop health projects," said Sara Young, a co-PI on the NIH who is based on the Crow Reservation. Young said she believes such programs are needed because Montana's 60,000 Native Americans, who compose 6.2 percent of Montana's population, experience significant health disparities compared to non-Indians. For example, one-quarter of American Indians in Montana from the years 1995-2004 died at age 43 or below, compared to the age of 67 for non-Indians. Montana Native Americans are 42 percent more likely to die of cancer, 291 percent more likely to die of diabetes, and 100 percent more likely to experience infant mortality than non-Indian Montanans.

"To change these health disparities, Native Americans must be the co-agents of change, rather than the objects of interventions," Christopher said. "Community based participatory research is one recommended strategy for eliminating these health disparities."

Mike Babcock, MSU psychology professor who is also a co-PI has been involved in mentoring Native American students in biomedical research for the past 13 years.

"This program will increase the number of Native American students who engage in health disparity research," Babcock said. "It will also provide new opportunities for the university community to become involved in CBPR projects."

The subcommittee of the Montana Board of Regents approved the consortium's request for establishing a center at MSU at their meeting Thursday.

Linda Hyman (406) 994-4411,, Suzanne Christopher,, 994-6321, Sara Young,, 477-6607, Mike Babcock,, 994-5175