Montana is home to twelve tribes and seven total reservations and nations. American Indians experience the highest prevalence of disability. To understand the origins of disability prevalence, we need to understand the history. Briefly, American Indians experienced a loss of their historical ways of living leading to the onset of several chronic conditions, like Type II Diabetes, that later lead to disability. Such historical loss can be traced back to treaties where many tribes relinquished their lands in exchange for essential services resulting a loss of cultural foods and ways of living that would lead the risk factors of chronic health conditions. 

Salena standing in a blue dress and Helen standing in a blue t-shirt and jeans. The background is a large room with a wooden ceiling.
Salena Beaumont Hill (Apsáalooke [Crow]) [left] has spent her career working in higher education serving American Indian college students at the University of Montana, Little Big Horn College, and the American Indian Graduate Center. Helen Russette (Chippewa-Cree) [right] was born and raised on the Rocky Boy’s reservation and is a doctoral student in public health and an adjunct instructor in the Native American Studies Department at the University of Montana.

No known course existed on the University of Montana campus that examines disability among American Indian and Alaska Natives (AIAN) who reside in rural locations or on a reservation. The Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities (RIIC) recognized this unmet need and secured funding for two Diversity Fellows to create and teach this novel course. A partnership between the RIIC and Native American Studies (NAS) was developed and this course is housed in the NAS department.

The course is taught by two Native American adjunct instructors who have respective academic disciplines in Counselor Education and Public Health. Both instructors were born and raised on respective reservations in Montana and have seen first-hand the strengths of the community to care for their elders and people with disability. 

Given the history and prevalence of disability among American Indians, we felt an unmet need existed with tribal communities and that this novel course could fill that gap. The Intersectionality of Disability, American Indians, and Ruralitycourse incorporates: 1) interdisciplinary teaching methods; 2) a health equity lens; and, 3) Indigenous methods by applying traditional American Indian ways of translating knowledge (e.g., storytelling). Content covered included the Native Americans and disability history and policies, health-disparities health data and surveillance, cultural competency, advocacy; children and elders, inclusive research methods; accessible services; disease and health; trauma; mental health and substance use, and resources in rural settings.

We engaged in critical Indigenous pedagogy methods, which promote addressing social injustices and addresses inequities and oppression in education with the goal of creating social change (Garcia & Shirley, 2013). Instructor-led conversations supported moving away from traditional teaching methods and towards methods that promote inclusive knowledge transfer. For example, we held evening conversations to discuss our respective interpretations of course content and support that there are multiple truths.  As such, Indigenous Research Methods (IRM) were applied to class assignments in the following ways: 1) self-location to promote relational accountability among instructors and students; 2) use of “yarning” to share knowledge and, as instructors, to re-tell, re-interpret and re-member our standpoints on topics through our weekly conversations; and, 3) students creating digital stories of one weekly topic as the final assignment, which aids in critical reflection for the self and for the listener (Windchief & San Pedro, 2019).

The students in the course benefited from exposure to a new perspective to help understand why Native Americans experience the highest prevalence of disability and what current supports are in place to meet the needs of Native Americans that live with a disability. They gained valuable skills to gather and organize health-related data specific to Indian reservations/nations and American Indian and Alaska Native populations living with disability. Our goal is for the students to take what they learned in our course to advocate or be the bridge for better inclusion of Native Americans and tribal communities in disability services, programs, and research.

As Diversity Fellows, we continue to find ways to incorporate the knowledge we have gained while developing this course and are thankful for this learning opportunity provided by RIIC. We will continue to share the importance of this experience developing and teaching this course throughout our careers. We hope students taking the course apply this content in their personal and professional lives, particularly for inclusive strategies and ways of thinking about disability in American Indian communities. 

Learn more about the course in the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education