Fellowship backs Ph.D. student's research on tribal health equity

By Michelle Dunlop Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Jesse Brisbois grew up listening her grandfather tell stories about the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. 

He would explain how the dam nearly decimated salmon and steelhead populations that their family and other members of the Spokane Tribe of Indians depended on for food. 

All these years later, Brisbois, a second year Ph.D. student at the University of Washington Information School, intends to use her research to advocate for tribes that have lost access to their historical food or water sources. Brisbois’s research will demonstrate how that lack of access to natural resources has negatively affected tribal members’ mental and physical well-being.

“When you have access to your lands, you have access to your hunting and fishing,” Brisbois said. A stable food supply means better physical health and less mental stress, she continued.

Brisbois won support for her research in the form of a fellowship through Health Policy Research Scholars, which is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) program. She will receive $124,000 in funding throughout her doctoral program. 

Additionally, Brisbois participates in policy and health equity training sessions through RWJF and receives support from program mentors, who have expertise useful to Brisbois’ research. Her advisor at the UW is Clarita Lefthand-Begay, an assistant professor for the iSchool. 

“This fellowship has really helped in refining my research questions,” Brisbois said.

Brisbois has a land management background that she wanted to pair with tribal and ecological studies for her dissertation. Until receiving the fellowship, she wasn’t sure how to tie all her interests together.

“As a Native, coming into a Ph.D. program is sort of scary,” Brisbois said. “Since receiving the fellowship, I’ve been able to wrap my head around my Ph.D. dissertation.”

Brisbois will examine co-management agreements between federal agencies and tribal nations and explore how land management decisions ultimately impacted tribal members’ health. She notes that historically federal agencies have made decisions on oil drilling and mining on tribal lands, the overhunting of bison, or the construction of hydroelectric dams, such as Grand Coulee, with little input from the tribes. Yet, the tribes are the ones who are affected most — through poor water quality and declining bison or fish populations — by those decisions. 

“The tribes and federal government should have been working together from the start as opposed to bringing the tribes in afterwards,” she said.

Brisbois will use information science to demonstrate how those decisions were detrimental to tribal members’ health. In addition, she says, the public often doesn’t realize the mental toll of the federal government’s decisions on tribal populations. That’s more difficult to quantify. 

However, Brisbois will have some recent positive developments to use as comparison. She notes the rebound in bison populations due to a change in hunting regulations and the removal of dams, like the Elwha, and subsequent increase of returning salmon as examples of tribes getting their priorities met. 

Brisbois hopes her research will provide tangible proof of the need for tribes to have a bigger hand in co-management of their lands, which is crucial for health equity.

One thing is certain: Brisbois’s grandfather will be rooting for her success. 

“He’s pretty excited for me,” Brisbois said. “Education has really been a big part of our family.”