Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ A resource center meant to improve American Indian public health programs is targeting Midwest tribes that have disease and death rates much greater than the general population, officials said Wednesday in announcing the project.

The American Indian Public Health Resource Center will assist tribes with health promotion and policy, disease prevention, technical work, and grant writing, among other things. Its director, Dr. Donald Warne, said the Indian population in the Northern Plains has some of the worst health disparities in the country.

In North Dakota, the average age at death is nearly 76 for the general population and nearly 55 for American Indians.

“Most of these health disparities are preventable, so the role of public health is essential,” Warne said. “This is really an opportunity to raise the bar much higher.”

Warne, a native of Kyle, South Dakota, and an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, received his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and medical degree from Stanford. He came to Fargo to start a master of public health program at NDSU, which features the only American Indian specialization in the country.

Warne said the program will allow officials at each tribe to tailor their health programming for their specific needs.

“Won’t that be wonderful: tribes setting the agenda for their own research,” Warne said.

The center is being funded by a three-year grant of more than $1.4 million from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and $720,000 for the North Dakota Higher Education Challenge Fund.

The center expects to employ up to 10 people, including an operational manager, project managers, support staff and graduate assistants. NDSU President Dean Bresciani said he’s confident funding will be available beyond the grant period.

“It’s going to be a model, frankly, that quickly extends beyond the state of North Dakota’s border,” Bresciani said. “I’m very optimistic about the sustainability of this and I think it’s of obvious importance to our state.”

Shelley Stingley, program director of the rural health care program for the Helmsley trust, said the goal is to have Native Americans take their training back to reservations. Warne said the “messenger matters in Indian country” and it’s important to have home-grown talent.

“It’s fun to be here and know that we are going to do something for our Native American populations, not only in North Dakota, but South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana,” Stingley said. “These are where our large tribes are. These are the people who need the help.”