Campus News

Students learn real history in Indigenous health disparities course

Dean Seneca pictured in front of Hayes Hall on UB South Campus.

Dean Seneca’s Indigenous health disparities course aims to teach students the real histories of American Indian and Alaska Native people, and how the injustices they faced created many of the health disparities that remain today. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published October 13, 2021

Katherine Connolly.
“You can’t focus on moving forward without acknowledging the atrocities of the past. ”
Katherine Connelly, UB MPH graduate

As a child, Katherine Connelly loved Disney’s “Pocahontas.” It told a beautiful tale of two people from different cultures who fell in love. Or, so she thought. The reality, however, is that Pocahontas was only about 10 when the European colonist John Smith kidnapped her, raped her, forced her into marriage and then forced her to give up her family’s tobacco secrets.

None of that, of course, is in the Disney film. But when millions of Americans think about Indigenous history and culture, “Pocahontas” and John Wayne movies are a reference point.

That’s why a new course being taught in the School of Public Health and Health Professions is so important, says Connelly, who graduated from the school’s master of public health program last spring and took the course taught by UB alumnus Dean Seneca.

“You can’t focus on moving forward without acknowledging the atrocities of the past,” Connelly says. “And that’s not to guilt anyone. That’s not to shame people. That is to bring awareness and inspire people to make true change, just like Dean is doing. He changed my life and he changed the lives of many of the students in this class. I wouldn’t be on my path without him.”

Seneca’s Indigenous health disparities course aims to teach students the real histories of American Indian and Alaska Native people, and how the injustices they faced created many of the health disparities that remain today.

“I intentionally created the course to bring my students through a very convoluted and historically misrepresented history of American Indians and Alaska Natives in this country,” says Seneca, who received his bachelor’s degree in planning and environmental design from the School of Architecture and Planning (he received the school’s Distinguished Alumni award in 2019).

“And I really entrench us in that because you can’t change if you don’t know where you were. If my students want to be public health professionals and working in tribal communities, they have to have an understanding of what really happened,” adds Seneca, who in addition to serving as an adjunct instructor in SPHHP is CEO of the consulting firm Seneca Scientific Solutions+.

The genesis of the course stemmed from a talk Seneca gave on American Indian and Alaska Native health disparities in September 2020 as part of the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior’s Brown Bag Lectures series.

Seneca credits SPHHP Dean Jean Wactawski-Wende with making the course a reality and acknowledging that the school needed to do more to improve diversity and equity. “It’s really through her leadership as a dean and wanting to change that we have this course on Indigenous health disparities for the university,” he says, adding that he’s “so proud that UB has taken this step to create such a course.”

A deeper dive into injustice

What really happened was a whole host of atrocities that are not taught in American high schools, says Connelly, who now works for Seneca’s consulting firm. “It’s soul-crushing and there was not one week in class where I wasn’t shedding a tear, where my soul didn’t feel the injustice of hundreds of years that I never understood, and I never will understand,” she says. “Even though I can’t understand it, Dean inspired me to be a part of the solution.”

The first several weeks of the course are devoted to the injustices Indigenous populations endured at the hands of the U.S. government. Seneca covers first contact, the Removal Act of 1830 and the many so-called “Trails of Tears,” in which tens of thousands of American Indians were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southeastern U.S. and relocated west of the Mississippi River, as well as the Dawes Act of 1887, which allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands.

He also covers the federal government’s attempts to “assimilate” Native Americans into the mainstream American way of life through boarding schools where disease ran rampant. Native American students in these schools were raped and beaten; students who didn’t do as instructed were withheld food.

“These boarding schools were militarized concentration camps, and the abuses there were insurmountable,” Seneca says. “This was a labor force for white America. They didn’t teach the Indians at these boarding schools how to be doctors and lawyers. They taught them to be servants.”

And that’s only a snippet of what Seneca teaches in the class. All of these horrific events serve to form for students a basis of the severity of the health disparities faced by Indigenous populations.

Toward a path of healing

“With this whole history are a lot of traumas,” he says. “We as native people are very resilient, we’re very tough, we’re very strong. We’ve survived these traumas, but we’ve never healed from them, and that’s why we have all these health disparities and health conditions that we have today.”

Take, for example, the fact that Indigenous people are at higher risk than the general U.S. population for a range of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, unintentional injuries, chronic liver disease and diabetes, among others, according to the Indian Health Service.

“We talk about why we have these addictions, domestic violence problems and alcohol problems,” says Seneca. “Is it the genetic difference of Native people? Well, no. It’s that traumatic history we have that we’ve survived but never healed from. So in the class we talk about things like social determinants of health and intergenerational trauma.”

The class, however, is not all doom and gloom. Seneca also touches on Indigenous role models, invites Indigenous guest speakers to talk to the class, and discusses traditional methods of healing, which are used more to comfort than to cure.

“We talk about how we heal from this. By then, all the students in the class are pumped up and excited — and then we have to end it and everybody’s depressed because we’ve reached the point where a full understanding of things comes to light,” he says.

Connelly took the course last spring and says it should be a requirement for all UB students.

“It’s only within the past eight months of my life, and I’m almost 28, that I’ve gotten to truly understand the history of the United States of America, and it’s not a pretty picture,” she says. “What Dean did for me, though, was to instill a sense of hope, that yes, these terrible things have occurred, but what can we do to heal now?”