This summer, while two Lakota native high school women scoured research
papers and roamed the lands of their Pine Ridge Reservation, two University
of Colorado College
of Nursing faculty members guided them from their offices on the Anschutz Medical Campus more than 350
(Left to right) Pamela Prag, Matt Grespin, Kylie Jo Red Willow, Ohiyesa Ramirez and Scott Harpin pose during a campus visit.
With Zoom sessions bridging the gap between the Aurora campus
and the reservation in the rolling hills of South Dakota, the CU mentors helped
as the high school students uncovered and analyzed environmental and other
health issues affecting the nation’s poorest county.
The young women hope their experience gives them a boost for
college and a career in the health sciences. The CU instructors hope this
first-time partnership continues for years to come.
Building relationships, making a difference
“We have been gifted, I feel like, with the opportunity to
work on the reservation,” said Pamela
Prag, MS, MPH, CNM, CU Nursing’s director of Global
Health/Health Disparities Programming.
Scott Harpin introduces Ohiyesa Ramirez and her project partner, Kylie Jo Red Willow (not shown) during a presentation to the College of Nursing.
“We are interested in relationship development, and this
works with what we really hope to be doing up there over the long term,” Prag
said, while introducing the two women before they gave a final presentation
campus. “These guys are our groundbreakers.”
Funded by the Missouri Breaks Institute, which promotes
research for improving quality of life in the area, the youth-driven project involved
attending meetings, interviewing researchers, educating their native people, writing
a white paper and doing final presentations.
Chosen from an interview pool of about a dozen students, Kylie
Jo Red Willow and Ohiyesa Ramirez worked with CU Nursing’s Scott
Harpin, PhD, MPH, RN, specialty director of the DNP/MPH
dual degree program, and Matt Grespin, MS, ScM, RN, adjunct faculty
“Matt and I were motivated to develop this partnership
solely to inspire these young people,” Harpin said. “It was so great to watch them
grow and develop their scientific skills during the 12 weeks we worked together.”
Women focus on educating, motivating community
Although the students’ environmental health findings were
grim, the pair hope they will make a difference.
“We have been attending some Environmental Protection Agency
meetings, and we’ve been gathering information about creeks on the reservation,”
Red Willow said. “We have found that most, if not all, are contaminated with
arsenic, and that can lead to heart disease and many other health problems.
Illegal dumpsites mar the otherwise scenic land of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Most people on the reservation lack access to filtered water, tap or bottled, she said. Making matters worse: Sewage pipeline issues have allowed seepage into the reservation’s water supplies.
“The population has significantly grown, and our people have
become dependent on plastics and Styrofoam,” Ramirez said. Unfortunately, knowledge
of proper disposal lags, she said.
“We have also visited some illegal dumpsites,” Red Willow
said. “This trash will spread for miles and miles, affecting water and
wildlife,” she said, showing slides of the massive trash sites defacing the
On the positive side, there is hope of a landfill cleanup
project in 2020, Red Willow said.
Meanwhile, education is key, with messages such as avoid
using plastic ware, recycle, switch to biodegradable products and use reusable
shopping bags, Ramirez said. She and Red Willow both plan on continuing their
educational and cleanup efforts with their peers and high schools.
Side research projects uncover grim statistics
In individual side projects, the students learned that
poverty, seclusion, harsh weather, substance abuse and lack of health care
compounded health problems on the reservation.
“Our teenage suicide rates are 150 percent higher than the
national average,” Red Willow said, citing The New York Times. “In the months
from March to December 2015, over 100 suicide attempts were made. And what’s
really bizarre is that we only have six mental health professionals on the reservation
to service more than 40,000 people. It’s very alarming.”
Ohiyesa Ramirez and Kylie Jo Red Willow.
A lack of health care facilities also affects residents physical
health, with the nearest hospital five hours away, Ramirez said.
Students plan to return equipped to help
“Over the years, I’ve watched my relatives come and go
because of diseases they had which could have been taken care of if there were
resources,” she said. “My dream starting as a little girl was always to become
a cardio-thoracic surgeon and come back to the reservation and help my people.”
Red Willow, too, wants to return to help clean up the
reservation with an environmental engineering education. Among her dream colleges:
the University of Colorado.
“We named our project ‘Project Unci Makha,’ ” Red Willow
said. “That means ‘love the Earth’ in Lakota. As indigenous people, it is our job
to protect the Earth for as long as we can.”