ANCHORAGE, AK–This 2005 photo–sent recently by Ted Mala, MD (former Commissioner of Health and Social Services in Alaska)–captures a moment that eventually led to the National Library of Medicine’s Native Voices: Native People’s Concepts of Health and Illness Exhibition.
The photo portrays an epiphany (soon reinforced by similar experiences) that over time persuaded Donald A.B. Lindberg, MD (the National Library of Medicine’s director from 1984-2015) and other members of the NLM staff to explain Native American health and illness issues from a Native perspective.
More specifically, the photo shows Dr. Lindberg reading to Gale Dutcher (Deputy Associate Director for the NLM Division of Specialized Information Services) and myself from a diary about providing medical services within the Alaskan Arctic in the early 20th century. It was summer 2005, and Dr. Lindberg, Gale, and I were visiting the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s medical library, where Dr. Mala took the photograph.
Last month, when Ted emailed me the 2005 photo, my first reaction was to praise a pleasant picture of the three of us (and the back of an unidentified library patron). I laughed at the thought that Dr. Mala, the recently retired director of tribal relations and traditional healing at the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, probably was clearing his digital picture files.
However, I soon realized Ted’s photo preserves the moment Dr. Lindberg, Gale, and I began to grasp the richness, vitality, and perseverance surrounding Alaska Native, Native American, and Native Hawaiian health.
Although we knew the 20th and 21st-century health status of Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians was punctuated by dire poverty, lack of access to medical care, and catastrophically high illness rates, the Alaskan Arctic diary suggested our understanding might be one-dimensional. As Dr. Lindberg read, the perseverance, sacrifice, and character of Alaskan health care providers, caregivers, and patients emerged so memorably that individually we began to reassess some prior assumptions.
As Dr. Lindberg read, I asked myself:
Was the history of health and health care for Alaska Natives (as well as Native Americans and Native Hawaiians) much more than a tale of woe?
Did stirring stories of hope, community, and adaptability, abound in Native communities in Alaska (and among Native populations within the continental US and Hawaii)?
Why was my prior understanding skewed and how did this provide an opportunity to expand my knowledge?
Besides capturing a memorable moment, the photo also depicts how a leader inspires co-workers. The informal pedagogical style depicted by the photo was a key element of Dr. Lindberg’s leadership and influence.
Essentially, Dr. Lindberg enjoyed educating others as his knowledge increased. The creation of Native Voices became an educational and cultural journey for all involved because Dr. Lindberg encouraged others to grow with him.
Some significant reinforcement occurred the next morning when Dr. Lindberg, Gale, and I (and a few other NLM staff members) saw hundreds of finely weaved baskets and intricate artifacts given to the Southcentral Foundation’s Primary Care Center. The gifts, mostly from the 20th century, were from grateful Alaska Native patients to local physicians and traditional healers.
The art’s inspirational power sparked a second, informal conversation about the richness of the history of Alaska Native, Native American, and Native Hawaiian health. As we talked, the members of the NLM visiting team agreed that the legacy of Alaska Native, Native American, and Native Hawaiian health was significantly more multi-dimensional, interesting, and hopeful than we appreciated.
We also began to discuss–for the first time–if a more complete and compelling narrative about health and history was likely to emerge if told by Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians.
As events unfolded, it took about 18 months of listening circles, and another year of consultations with groups of Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians, before Dr. Lindberg set up a committee within NLM (with Native consultants) to plan a possible Native Voices exhibit. This was followed (from 2007-2013) by more than 60 personal interviews between Dr. Lindberg and Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiian tribal leaders, native healers, physicians, nurses, public health officials, students, educators, clergy, and veterans.
The on-location interviews, sometimes on tribal lands, created a corpus of comments about Alaska Native, Native American, and Native Hawaiian health, illness, healing, and community that became the heart of NLM’s Native Voices exhibition. As Dr. Lindberg envisioned, the Native Voices’ video content’s authenticity is derived from hearing the interviewee’s own words.
It took a couple of years to assemble the commonalities and unique insights among the interviewees into accessible, interactive video packages. On the counsel of Native consultants, NLM added other features to the Native Voices exhibition, such as Native art related to healing and a timeline to contextualize Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiian medical and socio-political history. All of these were on display at NLM between 2011 and 2015. Some of the latter features remain accessible at NLM’s original Native Voices website and the Native Voices traveling exhibition website. Most of the Native Voices video content is also available for free via an iTunes or Android app.
However, every journey begins with a small step. And in this case, Ted’s photo captures the moment that sparked an exhibition about Alaska Native, Native American, and Native Hawaiian health, as well as an introduction to their historical and cultural challenges and accomplishments.
Finally, while Ted routinely deflects praise to Dr. Lindberg and the many NLM staff members who conceived, planned, and developed the Native Voices exhibition, Dr. Mala’s many contributions to the exhibition–including a well-timed photograph–are gratefully acknowledged.
By Robert A. Logan