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First Native American woman from Yale medical school ‘decolonizing’ tobacco for healing

Cigarette crushed out on a rustic wooden table top.
John Webb / Getty Images
Cigarette crushed out on a rustic wooden table top.

The first American Indian woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine is collaborating with her alma mater to launch a smoking cessation pilot program for Native American women who are survivors of intimate partner violence.

“The tobacco industry has done a terrible job of taking something that was very sacred to us, and then making millions of — billions of — dollars and having people become addicted to it,” said Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson, granddaughter of a Navajo medicine man.

The Native population has one of the highest rates of smoking in the country, and around 80% of Native American women who have survived intimate partner violence smoke, she said. That’s a rate that is almost seven times higher than the general population.

She pointed to the ineffectiveness of drug-based interventions like nicotine patches in this demographic.

“If you put a nicotine patch of 14 milligrams on Indigenous peoples, they will react to it; it's just too much nicotine,” she said.

“Chantix (for smoking cessation), bupropion (an antidepressant) – among Indigenous populations, those products have not really been tested yet to see if they are effective,” she said. “And, for this reason, we're going back to our Indigenous ways that have been a part of our culture.”

The women in the pilot program will each receive a talisman of sorts.

“We're going to be giving them čaŋšáša plant; and just carrying it with them so that when there's that urge to smoke these cigarettes, that they are able to hold čaŋšáša in their hands and say a prayer," she said. "Hopefully that's a part of their healing process.”

Caŋšáša is red willow bark and it’s harvested in the winter.

Tami Sullivan, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, said there are no mainstream interventions to address smoking cessation among women who experienced intimate partner violence, let alone any that are culturally tailored to American Indian women.

“Evidence strongly supports that women use substances, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, to address the negative sequelae of intimate partner violence,” she said. “People talk about it as kind of an emotion regulation strategy.”

The new intervention is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Nez Henderson is on a mission toward “decolonizing what has happened to tobacco, and then making sure that we're using tobacco in a spiritual way.”

Participants will practice mindfulness in the Lakota tradition.

“We worked very closely with Lakota elders as well as individuals who understand the concept, who know the words for mindfulness, who know the practice of mindfulness, and we were able to develop an eight week smoking cessation project,” Nez Henderson said.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.
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