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On Indigenous Peoples Day, Johns Hopkins' American Indian research hub celebrates its grand opening

The team had been at University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth Campus.

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Melissa Walls, newly appointed director of the Great Lakes Hub for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health in Duluth, watches as David Morrison Jr. smudges himself with sage smoke coming from the shell Walls was offering visitors to the center’s opening Monday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Speaking to a crowd gathered in front of the new Johns Hopkins Center for Indian Health in Duluth on Monday, Melissa Walls acknowledged how fitting it was that the center — the Great Lakes Hub — held its grand opening on a day honoring the community it serves.

"So cool that we get to have our grand opening on Indigenous Peoples Day," said Walls, the hub's director and an associate professor of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Indigenous Peoples Day honors the people who were here before Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 and came upon the Americas while looking for Asia. The holiday also rejects the celebration of Columbus, who enslaved and killed many indigenous people of the Caribbean.

Like reclaiming Columbus Day for the celebration of Native Americans, the hub is looking to change the narrative surrounding Native American health.

"Yes, we suffer a lot of health inequalities as a direct result of colonization, and many, many centuries of really crummy circumstances and injustices," said Walls, a member of the Bois Forte and Couchiching First Nation bands. "And yet look at us ... there are a lot of Native people in this space right now who are massive leaders in our community and communities around the world."

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That's done through research, Walls said.

"I see it as using that tool — that thing called research — to build this evidence based in a Western lens that simply translates for other people what our elders have told us forever, which is that community and culture offer the solution," Walls said.

Before Walls and her staff of 12 people moved into its office at 1915 South St. in August, they had all done similar work at the University of Minnesota Medical School's Duluth campus.

The move is "continuing a great partnership through a new partnership," Walls said.

While the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health has partnerships throughout the United States, the Great Lakes Hub is the only center office outside Arizona, New Mexico and Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins is based.

Allison Barlow, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, traveled to Duluth from Baltimore so she could attend the grand opening.

Barlow said the new Duluth-based hub gives the program greater access and reach. Walls and her team already had more than 100 community partnerships across 11 Anishinaabe bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario.

"This is really opening almost like a new portal," Barlow said.

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The hub is focused on public health research and practice on topics like the opioid crisis or diabetes in Native American communities.

Dr. David Peters, chair of the Johns Hopkins Department of International Health, wants the hub and its partners to focus on education, research and teaching and problem solving.

"When you have a visionary leader like Melissa (Walls), who's taking a concept of really community-based research and practice, it's a real partnership in learning and solving problems," Peters said.

"Our center really strives to elevate indigenous leadership, and opening this Great Lakes Hub up here under the direction of Melissa Walls — it's just such a cool moment," Barlow said.

Related Topics: HEALTHCARE
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