Students learn the real story in the Indigenous Health Disparities course – UB Now: News and insights for UB faculty and staff

Students learn the real story in the Indigenous Health Disparities course – UB Now: News and insights for UB faculty and staff

“And I really entrench us in that because you can’t change if you don’t know where you were. If my students want to be public health professionals and working in tribal communities, they have to have an understanding of what really happened,” adds Seneca, who in addition to serving as an adjunct instructor in SPHHP is CEO of the consulting firm Seneca Scientific Solutions+. “I intentionally created the course to bring my students through a very convoluted and historically misrepresented history of American Indians and Alaska Natives in this country,” says Seneca, who received his bachelor’s degree in planning and environmental design from the School of Architecture and Planning (he received the school’s Distinguished Alumni award in 2019). The genesis of the course stemmed from a talk Seneca gave on American Indian and Alaska Native health disparities in September 2020 as part of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior’s Brown Bag Lectures series.

“You can’t focus on moving forward without acknowledging the atrocities of the past,” Connelly says. “And that’s not to guilt anyone. That’s not to shame people. That is to bring awareness and inspire people to make true change, just like Dean is doing. He changed my life and he changed the lives of many of the students in this class. I wouldn’t be on my path without him.” That’s why a new course being taught in the School of Public Health and Health Professions is so important, says Connelly, who graduated from the school’s master of public health program last spring and took the course taught by UB alumnus Dean Seneca.

Seneca’s Indigenous health disparities course aims to teach students the real histories of American Indian and Alaska Native people, and how the injustices they faced created many of the health disparities that remain today. None of that, of course, is in the Disney film. But when millions of Americans think about Indigenous history and culture, “Pocahontas” and John Wayne movies are a reference point.

He also covers the federal government’s attempts to “assimilate” Native Americans into the mainstream American way of life through boarding schools where disease ran rampant. Native American students in these schools were raped and beaten; students who didn’t do as instructed were withheld food. “These boarding schools were militarized concentration camps, and the abuses there were insurmountable,” Seneca says. “This was a labor force for white America. They didn’t teach the Indians at these boarding schools how to be doctors and lawyers. They taught them to be servants.” The first several weeks of the course are devoted to the injustices Indigenous populations endured at the hands of the U.S. government. Seneca covers first contact, the Removal Act of 1830 and the many so-called “Trails of Tears,” in which tens of thousands of American Indians were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southeastern U.S. and relocated west of the Mississippi River, as well as the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands.

What really happened was a whole host of atrocities that are not taught in American high schools, says Connelly, who now works for Seneca’s consulting firm. “It’s soul-crushing and there was not one week in class where I wasn’t shedding a tear, where my soul didn’t feel the injustice of hundreds of years that I never understood, and I never will understand,” she says. “Even though I can’t understand it, Dean inspired me to be a part of the solution.” Seneca credits SPHHP Dean Jean Wactawski-Wende with making the course a reality and acknowledging that the school needed to do more to improve diversity and equity. “It’s really through her leadership as a dean and wanting to change that we have this course on Indigenous health disparities for the university,” he says, adding that he’s “so proud that UB has taken this step to create such a course.”

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