'I want to bring healing': Dr. Siobhan Wescott Named New American Indian Health Director at UNMC

July 27, 2021, 10:57 a.m. ·

UNMC names Dr. Siobhan Wescott as the endowed professor and director of the American Indian Health Department in its College of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of UNMC)

Listen To This Story

The University of Nebraska Medical Center has a new endowed professor and director for its American Indian Health department in the College of Public Health.

Dr. Siobhan Wescott earned her degree in government from Dartmouth College and then went on to earn her master's degree in public health from the University of California. Dr. Wescott received her medical degree from Harvard Medical School. The new 'Dr. Susan and Susette LaFlesche' professor was most recently the co-director of the 'Indians Into Medicine Program' at the University of North Dakota.

Jackie Ourada, with Nebraska Public Media News, spoke with Dr. Siobhan Wescott, who hopes to address Native American health and healing in her new role.

Jackie Ourada: Dr. Wescott, thank you so much for joining me. First of all, we know you're an Alaskan Native, so a little far from home now. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Siobhan Wescott: Well, I will say that I'm somebody who's really comfortable in rural settings. I grew up in that cabin outside of Fairbanks with an outhouse and inconsistent running water, and yet I also succeeded at Harvard Medical School. So, I feel like I can walk into any place in America and find a way to fit in or find that common ground that we all need to, to move forward, so I'm excited to be here and bring that flexibility that I have in different settings to see how we can improve the situation here in Nebraska.

Jackie Ourada: You have a few titles in this new role and one of your projects, I see, will be leading the new Nebraska HEALING project at UNMC. Could you tell us a little bit about what your goal is in that initiative?

Dr. Siobhan Wescott: I know it sounds simple, but I do want to bring healing. I'm not from this area. However, I can just, from my early sense of what's happening here, that there is need for healing. There's quite a bit of tensions. You know, because tribes, historically, before contact, didn't necessarily get along. There were allies. There were enemies, that's human nature. So, some of that is just continuing to the current times, and I'd like to be able to -- I mean I'm not going to be able to have all tribes get along, but certainly find whatever common ground we can, and rally the resources of universities and system to be able to help build on that, whatever common ground we can find and bring healing to tribes.

Jackie Ourada: You've been here now for about five weeks. From what you have seen so far, what's the status of Native American Health in Nebraska, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Siobhan Wescott: Well, whenever you talk about the health of Native Americans, you come up against data problems, so I'll just say that at the start. And part of it is, for good reason, because tribes have sovereignty over their own data. So, that is, that is a good thing. Unfortunately, it makes it a little bit difficult to sort out some of the trends that are going on. But early on the pandemic, there were some disturbing data released that Native Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be infected with COVID than the general population. So, you know, what little data we have is concerning. I think the vaccination situation -- it's a really case-by-case basis because some tribes have not done as well. You know, maybe have 30% vaccination rate, which is more similar to the general population, but other tribes are in the 90%, and have been sharing. For instance, the Blackfeet Nation in Montana have been sharing doses with their Canadian neighbors who line up for hours, waiting to get the vaccine. So, it just was a unique situation because tribes could choose between distribution of vaccine doses from the Indian Health Services or from this date, so it really was up to tribes who they thought could deliver. And they've, they've done extremely well in that area. I will say, the Indian Health Service, in general, has very high vaccination rates for childhood vaccines, So, this is just an area where they excel.

Jackie Ourada: Absolutely. I wanted to ask -- we're in a new movement now where certain groups are addressing the terrible past that was inflicted on Indigenous people. How do you think we start to confront that history and repair relations?

Dr. Siobhan Wescott: Well that is something that, it's a little bit difficult for me as an outsider to say what should be done. I think we all have our own biases, and, and I'm not bias-free either. I think it's helpful when we can all say it's okay to talk about what happened in the past. I do think the current federal administration is starting to look into, what we call, boarding schools in Canada. They had a different name, but they found over a thousand bodies from unmarked graves, near the equivalent of boarding schools in Canada just in the last few months. And I think they may well find something similar here in the U.S. A well known boarding school here -- it was based Kansas -- the Carlisle Indian School has started repatriating the remains for South Dakota tribes of children who died when they were students there in the 1800s. And it may seem like a small thing, but even that return of those loved ones who never got to have future generations, because they died so young -- that that can be healing. And it's okay to look back and say this was problematic, as long as we're saying okay now what can we do to repair things. And that's part of what we want the healing program to be able to facilitate.

This interview was edited for length. To learn more about Dr. Siobhan Wescott, read her full biography at UNMC's website here.