Aligned Blog: Celebrating Native American Heritage Month: in conversation with Karina Walters, Ph.D., M.S.W.

Karina Walters, Ph.D., M.S.W.

Karina Walters, Ph.D., M.S.W.

By Shauna Clark, Ph.D., CCR Senior Diversity Advisor, Office of Equity & Inclusion

Karina Lynn Walters, Ph.D., M.S.W., is an enrolled member in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and was recently selected to be director of the NIH Tribal Health Research Office (THRO).  Before arriving at NIH, Dr. Walters was a tenured full professor and the Katherine Hall Chambers Scholar at the University of Washington (UW) School of Social Work and was the founding director of the UW Indigenous Wellness Research Institute. I had the opportunity to have a brief chat with Dr. Walters about her work here at NIH and what motivates her to seek new ways to improve the health and lives of Indigenous Peoples. I left our conversation feeling invigorated and excited at the potential to work with and learn from her in the future. Excerpts from our conversation are below:

What attracted you to the directorship of the THRO office at NIH, especially given all of the great things you were doing at UW?

I was loving my research, but I was at the point in my life and career where I wanted to be able to have more of a national impact and be able to help shape the trajectory of research building for indigenous communities through NIH. I want to help communities move forward while helping to eradicate disparities and the oppressive structures that drive trauma. I'm hoping through THRO to get more native people to the table so that we can help other scientists see the value of what an Indigenous perspective brings. I just saw this as a great opportunity to leverage my scientific expertise and cultural knowledge to bridge any research gaps between Tribes and the NIH in our mutual efforts to eradicate Indigenous health inequities. 

How do you think your success as a researcher will impact your work at THRO?

I mean, I feel like almost 30 years of research experience, I've been either a Principal Investigator or Co-Investigator on 34 NIH grants, so I know what it takes to not only get a grant, but actually to do the work. And I discovered from my own experiences with NIH that you can be incredibly innovative. You can build research that is designed by and for your community. You can do culturally derived health promotion interventions that reflect our indigenous knowledges and our methodologies.

I’d love to hear about work you’ve done that you’re proud of.

We designed an intervention that was completely community-based; it was based on rewalking the Trail of Tears. We then developed our health promotion model from that experience. We used that data to develop an intervention curriculum that was funded as an R01. Not many people can say they got an R01 funded by walking the Trail of Tears and talking to their ancestors that way to create a health promotion model by and for Choctaw. What's motivating change for our community is reconnecting to the vision our ancestors held for us.

Wow. That is really powerful.

Can you talk about some of the barriers you have faced?

I remember one of my first grants. I applied for a grant on alcohol use and historical trauma and the impact of intergenerational trauma on alcohol use. One of my first reviewers said there's no evidence that historical trauma has had a negative impact on contemporary native people. And I'm like, well, give me the money because I am proposing that as an empirical question. If the science is there and I can back it up with methods to tackle that really difficult question, then let's do it. The challenge is for us to be able to figure out not only how we use existing Western science methods, but also how we bring our Indigenous methods as the foundation and then draw from Western science to begin to fill in the gaps or be able to supplement or to lift-up the indigenous methods that we're proposing. It's doable; it's just that it takes some creativity and ability to translate back and forth and knowing your audience.

I’m glad I didn’t stop at that first negative review.

What lessons would you share with others who want to engage their own communities in a meaningful way?

You know, that our cultural knowledge and our cultural approach actually is going to be the big factor in motivating change. It's not a place of disempowerment. One of my students once said they wanted to focus all their time on deconstructing colonialism. And I said, OK, you can do that, but you're still prioritizing or centering the colonizer in your work. The next step is to say how do we decolonize, how do we move things forward while recognizing that's the context we live in? We hope that our work helps to dismantle structures of oppression and injustice that drive our health inequities. How do we do that in ways that grapple with the most pressing health needs that our communities are dealing with and developing the best science to do that?

And I think the burden is on us to develop the innovation to the science, right? We can't throw up our hands and say, you know, the science just isn't there. We have to stretch our minds and stretch our imagination and stretch our boundaries and not be worried or threatened by new, really creative ideas. We have to build the innovations in science and that doesn't have to be a scary thing. That can actually be a really cool, empowering and exciting thing, because we've always been scientists. Our communities have always been scientists.

It's our responsibility at the NIH to address disparities and the way to address those is by partnering with our communities and bringing all of our talents together and allowing the communities to figure out what tools are going to help heal them and what tools they can bring to the table that they might not even recognize can also be generative and helpful.

I think there's just incredible opportunity to not only leverage, but embrace, the Indigenous knowledges — and really for all communities — embrace the knowledge that comes from community experience and community heartache and community thriving.

Dr. Walters recently gave a talk as part of the Office of Cancer Survivorship (OCS) Director's Series titled "Beyond Survivance: Thrivance Among American Indian and Alaska Native Cancer Survivors." You can watch the full talk on the OCS website.

Aligned is a blog written by the Center for Cancer Research's Office of Equity and Inclusion discussing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and highlighting various ways we can all be more involved in creating a more diverse scientific workforce. Learn more about CCR's commitment to inclusion.

Posted on Mon, 11/13/2023