After three years of relationship building with the Native community, an Indigenous Health Coalition launched in November 2023 with the support of Common Ground Health. Made up of Indigenous community members and advocates, the group is working to address Indigenous health equity for the region and across upstate New York.
The Indigenous Health Coalition joins the African American Health Coalition and the Latino Health Coalition, which are convened at Common Ground Health, the health research and planning organization for the Rochester-Finger Lakes region.
The coalition is made up of 17 Indigenous inaugural members, most of whom are from the Rochester area, with a few who hail from as far as the Buffalo and Syracuse areas. Several members took part in the listening tour Common Ground conducted in 2022-23, and others submitted an application to join this summer.
"An Indigenous Health Coalition is something that has never been done before [in this area], bringing together all our tribal nations and urban populations to engage in meaningful discussion to advance health and wellness for our indigenous populations,” said Dean Seneca, a founding member and owner of Seneca Scientific Solutions+. “Common Ground should be very proud for leading this initiative. The Coalition is the first step to addressing the health disparities and inequities Indigenous populations experience."
Seneca, Ronalyn “Ronnie” Pollack and Todd Michel Waite facilitated the coalition’s first meeting on Nov. 1. The trio had originally connected with and advised Common Ground in 2021 as it conducted outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic and noticed that the Indigenous population in the region was significantly overlooked. Data is sparse on Indigenous health outcomes locally, but nationally, Indigenous populations have some of the starkest health inequities when compared to the population overall. The group has been working alongside Common Ground since then to advise the organization on how it could expand the work beyond COVID-19.
“Indigenous people remain the most invisible and marginalized populations in our urban worlds,” said Waite, a member of the Seneca Nation (Bear Clan). “Nya-weh [thank you] to Common Ground Health for recognizing the challenge and stepping into the battle to bring light to the health and wellbeing needs of indigenous people in our region and supporting us in reaching this pivotal point in the journey to better indigenous health.”
“Throughout this journey, Common Ground’s staff has been listening with humility as we learned so much about Indigenous health and the erasure of Indigenous peoples and culture,” said Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health. “We are committed to working with the Indigenous Health Coalition long-term to ensure that Indigenous voices are represented in our data, convenings and transformative work.”
The coalitions’ launch is long overdue but is thrilling to see to fruition, said Pollack, of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation/Six Nations of the Grand River, co-chair of Rochester’s Indigenous Peoples' Day Committee, director of Training & Community Engagement for the Center for Dispute Settlement and an adjunct professor in the Health & Physical Education Department at Monroe Community College.
“This is part of the reality that our ancestors dreamed of for future generations,” she said. “This Indigenous Health Coalition will enable many pathways to create healing in a multitude of capacities. These pathways of health and wellness for all Indigenous peoples will shift towards healing and away from the many health disparities that have plagued our people for far too long. The organic forming of this health coalition felt very natural and parallel to how our culture advises.”
During the listening tour, 21 interviews were conducted from spring 2022 to spring 2023. Those interviewed had backgrounds in medicine, dentistry, mental health, women’s health, art therapy, counseling, health research, Indigenous language, Indigenous ceremonies, traditional medicine, climate change, food/nutrition, Indigenous advocacy, public relations, community service, higher education, and social work. All had lived experience on- and off-territory, navigating through today’s Indigenous ways of life.
All interviewees named mental health as a top priority, including a focus on intergenerational trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences. Additionally, 67% identified chronic diseases as a top priority, including diabetes, cancer and obesity, and 53% identified addiction/substance abuse as a top priority in part due to a lack of mental health and behavioral health services.
Interviewees said the top barriers to addressing Indigenous health inequities are a lack of: data and visibility, access to culturally competent health care, access to quality health care and collaboration across Indigenous communities to address the health needs of those living on- and off-territory. Regional assets supporting Indigenous health equity include traditional ways of life, knowledge, teachings, diets and medicines and established Native programs and initiatives. The group’s vision includes a recognition of the immense value of traditional healing.
“The formation of an Indigenous Health Coalition is just the beginning of a movement that belongs to all of us who identify as indigenous,” Waite said. “As our movement grows, it is crucial that we respect and honor the sovereignty of our home nations and that spirit of sovereignty we each carry with us in our hearts as we embark on this work. Most importantly, we must welcome the voice of every indigenous person who chooses to join the movement. There is much wisdom locked away in our community and it is needed now if we are going to succeed in changing the health and well-being of our next seven generations.”
“I am profoundly grateful to have developed a relationship with Dean, Ronnie and Todd over the last several years,” said Hannah Shippee, a program coordinator with Common Ground Health. “They have reinforced for me how integral being in good relationship is for this work. I am excited to see this initiative move forward, and to have the opportunity to learn from all of the new members of our coalition about how Common Ground can continue to show up as a good partner in this effort.”
The coalition will spend its first few months developing its structure and focus. It aims to be inclusive of all Indigenous people who want to engage in the work, and will communicate when different opportunities become available. For those who want to sign up to receive updates or learn more about the coalition, view the coalition’s web page at https://www.commongroundhealth.org/indigenous. For additional questions, contact Shippee at Hannah.email@example.com.
About Common Ground Health
Founded in 1974, Common Ground is the health research and planning organization for the Rochester-Finger Lakes region. We bring together leaders from health care, education, business, government and other sectors to find common ground on health challenges. Learn more at commongroundhealth.org.