dots circle about the woman, framing her against a murky background.
Her arms rest idly by her sides as she gazes askance. The portrait
"Grandmother," by artist Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (a member of the Seminole,
Muscogee, and Diné tribes), is one of many pieces created by
well-known Native American artists featured on public health posters
throughout the nation.
The posters are part of a campaign by
Native People for Cancer Control, based at the University of Washington,
to raise cancer awareness and promote cancer-preventive measures
to decrease health disparities in the Native community. By leveraging
the appeal of art, a traditional tool for learning, the group hopes
that the Native Art for Cancer Project will close what has been
a persistent gap in public health.
"It's a great way to start the conversation
on cancer topics," said Carrie Nass, program director for Partnerships
for Native Health (PNH).
To date, more than 7,000 of the posters
have been distributed nationally.
The posters feature basic information
on cancer and its simple preventive measures like screenings, vaccination,
and leading a healthy lifestyle. Well-known Native artists who work
in a variety of mediums including beadwork, photography, oil painting,
drawing, and weaving have contributed their artwork.
The oldest known piece of Native art
a bone carving of a mammoth or mastodon dates back 13,000
years. Since then, Native art has come to include both traditional
and western elements. Beadwork incorporates western glass and ceramic
beads and in the past two centuries, a new branch of Native art
developed through photography. Many branches of Native art have
traditionally included a functional element baskets to hold
belongings or blankets to keep people warm. By using artwork to
promote public health, the Native Art for Cancer Project continues
this tradition of functionality.
The project is part of PNH, a program
that addresses a wide variety of public health issues in the Native
community. PNH began around 12 years ago and was formalized in 2009.
PNH also utilizes art as an interactive
tool to raise awareness of public health issues through the Native
Comic Book Project. The project teaches youth through comic books.
"To solve health disparities, you have
to start with the kids," said Corinna Tordillos (Northern Cheyenne
and Tlingit), a senior majoring in biochemistry and American Indian
studies who has been involved with PNH as a student assistant and
as a researcher since her freshman year.
By actively engaging the students in the
learning process, the project aligns itself with a traditional Native
way of learning, thus increasing its effectiveness, said Robyn Pebeahsy
(Yakama and Comanche), research assistant for the Native Comic Book
The Native Art for Cancer Project started
a decade ago by Steve Charles (Tlingit and Haida), former research
coordinator for the Native Art for Cancer Control.
"I felt that bringing posters to communities
with compelling art would draw viewers to contemplate the art but,
more importantly, to also think about the cancer facts on each poster,"
He left his position as curator of Sacred
Circle Gallery of American Indian Art, at that time one of the nation's
preeminent Native art galleries, to spearhead the project.
artists that I envisioned for the series came on board enthusiastically,"
Charles said. "I had developed relationships with Native artists
over many years who had exhibitions at the Sacred Circle Gallery."
In addition to the Native Art for Cancer
Project, PNH oversees nearly two dozen research projects that address
a wide variety of public health issues including cardiovascular
disease, cancer, and women's health. Throughout a nine-state region
that spans north to Alaska, down to Oregon, and into the Rocky Mountain
states, PNH seeks to facilitate culturally-sensitive outreach, training,
and research programs.
This involves ensuring that information
is framed in an accurate and culturally-aware way "that respects
the needs of native people and tribal sovereignty," said Abigail
Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), a tribal liaison with the Institute of Translational
PNH grew from a need both to address the
health disparities between the target communities and the wider
public and do so in a culturally sensitive manner. This need is
what prompted the initiation of the Native Art for Cancer Project.
The Native community suffers from higher incidences of and death
rates from certain types of cancers.
Finding a solution to the disparity involves
more than public outreach, however. Additional research must be
But research conducted as it has been
in the past can do more harm than good, Echo-Hawk said.
Echo-Hawk said the harmful research studies
experienced by the Havasupai Indians inspired her to work for PNH.
In the 1990s, the Havasupai of Arizona gave blood samples to researchers
at Arizona State University, believing that the blood samples would
be used specifically for research into diabetes, a condition that
plagued the community. However, the blood samples were then used
for a series of studies that stigmatized the community such
as studies on the incidence of schizophrenia and inbreeding in the
community and contradicted their religious beliefs. One study
traced the Havasupi back to Asia even though their creation story
tells that they originated in the Grand Canyon.
"It reverberated throughout Indian country,"
Echo-Hawk said. "I felt a lot of grief. Who I am is tied into my
culture and spiritual beliefs. To have such an attack on them was
very impactful on me."
Through her work at PNH, Echo-Hawk seeks
to prevent similarly hurtful experiences.