Improving Lives of Indigenous People

  • Students and faculty from University of South Florida (USF) and Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) at an orange grove in Arunachal Pradesh, along with the manager of the grove. Photograph courtesy USF
  • USF and RGU faculty and students in front of the IGU museum of the Idu Mishmis in Roing, Arunachal Pradesh. Photograph courtesy USF
  • RGU and USF faculty and students with Mitali N. Singh, deputy commissioner of Lower Dibang Valley. Photograph courtesy USF
  • RGU and USF faculty and students plant trees under the leadership of Dr. Pulu, the medical superintendent of the district hospital, and other hospital staff. Photograph courtesy USF

The University of South Florida is working to establish a unique Indigenous Studies Field School in Arunachal Pradesh, in partnership with Rajiv Gandhi University and RIWATCH.

Powered by the simple belief that knowledge works best when shared, the Indigenous Studies Field School for Global Exchange in Arunachal Pradesh was set up to foster cultural resource knowledge and field research skills to enable students from the University of South Florida (USF) and Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) to study the health status of indigenous people. The groundwork for the school was established when a group of 16 students from the University of South Florida’s School of Social Work, led by Manisha Joshi and Iraida V. Carrion, associate professors at the School of Social Work, went to Arunachal Pradesh for a project on the health status of its indigenous people.

Addressing health inequities

There are about 370 million indigenous people worldwide and about one-third of them live in India. “Indigenous people are often ignored and experience severe health inequities,” says Joshi. “To facilitate their health and well-being, we must perceive and recognize issues like access to healthcare and the prevailing sociocultural environment.” An interdisciplinary approach is, thus, often used to promote better understanding, agrees Carrion.

“My family is from Puerto Rico and there are great similarities between our cultures,” she adds. “I have a master’s in social work and a Ph.D. in anthropology, and I combine critical approaches from both fields in my studies of marginalized populations.” In the United States, Carrion researches marginalized Latino communities.

Encouraging student participation

Work for the project started in 2012, when a team comprising faculty members from different departments of the University of South Florida went to Arunachal Pradesh for the first time. Joshi and Carrion realized that such field trips could be an excellent learning experience for students. They could get hands-on experience of different cultures, diversity and health-related social aspects in a very different setting, away from the United States. Joshi and Carrion worked to convert the program into a study abroad program. In 2015, a Faculty Travel Mobility Grant provided the resources for them to go to Arunachal Pradesh, where they collaborated with the Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures and Heritage (RIWATCH).

RIWATCH, located in the Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, is a nonprofit, nongovernmental, community-based research organization that aims to empower ethnic communities sustainably. In 2016, Joshi and Carrion were awarded the prestigious U.S.-India 21st Century Knowledge Initiative Award 2016-2019 to establish a unique Indigenous Studies Field School for Global Exchange in Northeast India, in partnership with Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal Pradesh and RIWATCH. The 21st Century Knowledge Initiative aims to strengthen collaboration and build partnerships between U.S. and Indian institutions of higher education.

“The Field School helps USF and RGU students practice the knowledge and methodologies they learn in the trainings we provide, through opportunities to engage with indigenous people through our community partner, RIWATCH,” says Joshi. “Participation in the school requires them to undertake health-research projects that are relevant to the local people. The locals are involved at every stage of the projects.”

For example, the Enjalu Menda women’s empowerment group is engaged in designing and conducting these surveys. The group has conducted extensive women’s health surveys as well as community assessment on attitudes toward cancer and treatment. “At the moment, we are in the process of analyzing this data related to physical and mental health issues, including the findings related to cancer,” says Carrion.

Field of learning

Anne Lastra, a graduate student from the School of Social Work, was part of the team that traveled to Arunachal Pradesh to establish Indigenous Studies Field School. Always interested in India, she found the experience fascinating. Lastra studied diseases and illnesses specific to children in the area as well as access to healthcare and related costs.

The trip highlighted the importance of cultural values and their deep relation to healthcare. “For example, I now know that India is a very family-oriented culture,” says Lastra. “Medicinal plants are an important aspect of treatment and, thus, while framing policies related to such communities, it is important to keep this in mind.”

Joshi and Carrion believe that in the long run, the Field School will increase the number of indigenous health researchers in India and the United States. In addition, they are working toward robust and sustainable partnerships between the two universities, RIWATCH and indigenous communities. They hope the partnerships will result in innovative, cutting-edge research that will ultimately improve the lives of indigenous people.

Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.