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John Lowe Brings Strength, Healing, and Hope to Native Youth

by Joanne DiGiorgio
John Lowe, Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, an alumnus of the American Nurses Association Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program, comes across as a fulfilled man. His welcoming and unassuming demeanor puts one at ease. Yet the sheer volume of his accomplishments indicates a passionate sense of purpose. An educator, researcher, and writer, he has made advocating for the health of Native Americans and other Indigenous groups worldwide his life's work.

Lowe's sense of purpose began in childhood. He grew up in a rural Native American community in the U.S. Southeast, profoundly influenced by his family and community. His grandmother spoke the Native language and handed down the traditions. Most significantly, she taught her family traditional Native American values.

At the core of these values was respect for all people and nature, and the belief that family and all that came from the Creator are sacred. Children learned to revere their elders and look to them for guidance. Though they had no material things, they had each other and their community. Lowe's sense of resilience rose from this strong foundation.

Substance Misuse and Health Issues Rooted in Historical Trauma
Lowe says he believes his research began as a child, when he became aware of the toll substance misuse and mental and physical health issues were taking on his extended family and community. His inquisitive nature led him to look for reasons behind the self-destructive behavior. He began to understand that at the heart of these problems was a deep grief stemming from the historical trauma endured by his Native community.

"When we look at what happened to us as a people," Lowe recalls, "that demonization of those practices or values and beliefs as a people and what I call dispossession of them … it left us in a vacuum." He observes that Native Americans "were seen in different time periods as less than human," adding that as a result of colonization, "you've been dispossessed of many things that kept you grounded or centered."

Fellowship Branches Out to Many Separate Works
Lowe was an MFP Fellow during 1992–96, while working on his doctorate at the University of Miami. His dissertation led to the development of the Native Reliance Model. The research developed during his years as a Minority Fellow has been the impetus for the numerous initiatives he has generated since. Through the Minority Fellowship Program, Lowe received invaluable support from beyond his academic institution and says his exposure to other Fellows and scientists was tremendous. He learned how to develop and conduct scientifically sound research, which has led to success obtaining funding for his program from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"For me to be somebody [who is] considered a scientist now, conducting studies that include rigorous research designs and [being] NIH funded," says Lowe, "I would have never had that ability if not for the grounding the Minority Fellowship provided."

Lowe currently chairs the National Advisory Board for the MFP. Nearly half of the approximately 23 Indigenous nurses with doctorates in the United States are MFP alumni. Lowe himself has mentored and graduated five Ph.D. Indigenous nurses.

Though Lowe's accomplishments are myriad, he spoke for this article mostly about two recent projects: a new center for Indigenous research and an innovative afterschool program aimed at preventing drug and alcohol misuse.

Creates First Indigenous Nursing Research Center
Lowe currently holds the position of McKenzie Professor in Health Disparities Research at the Florida State University (FSU) College of Nursing. He recently created the Center for Indigenous Nursing Research for Health Equity (INRHE) at FSU, the first Indigenous nursing research center worldwide. Its goal is to provide a multidisciplinary environment that gives nurses the opportunity to play a much-needed role serving the communities in which they live and work. Additionally, FSU's College of Nursing is developing a Ph.D. nursing program geared specifically toward preparing nurse scientists to conduct health disparities research. This program will enhance INRHE's efforts to become a hub for Indigenous nursing research.

In some instances, nurses are the only caregivers an Indigenous population sees. As a result, they are more trusted than other providers. They tend to be more holistic than other healthcare professionals and are often Natives of their community. Despite their dedication, these nurses have been historically undervalued. Yet they are the individuals best equipped to serve as the voices for their community, to determine which problems need to be addressed, and to provide input on the development of research projects that could lead to solutions.

Problems That Plague Indigenous Communities Worldwide
Though INRHE is new, Lowe says enthusiastically "We are off to a great start." This past June, the FSU College of Nursing held a summit to celebrate the program's opening. Six countries were represented: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, and the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska). Within all these Indigenous groups, Lowe has found the rates of teen suicide, drug and alcohol misuse, obesity, diabetes, and other health issues are almost identical. The United Nations defines Indigenous people as those populations who were dominated by another group, not only socially and politically, but also in numbers.

Because his early research led him to focus on school-age populations, Lowe founded a program called the Intertribal Talking Circle, which is based on the traditional Native American practice. The program takes a strengths-based approach by teaching youths about traditional values, beliefs, and practices, which can encourage effective ways of coping.

What Substances Do to Youths and Why They Use Them
Previous prevention programs were limited because they educated students only about the effects of various drugs and alcohol. However, leaders found this approach sometimes compels youth to seek out those substances as an escape from difficult feelings. Rather than merely feeding youth information, Talking Circles involves youths in their own growth and insight into who they are, where they are, and where they are going.

Talking Circles is a 10-session afterschool program facilitated by an Indigenous person with leadership experience (such as a teacher or counselor) and a traditional elder or elders from the community. At first, the program was aimed at high schoolers, but it now includes children as young as 10 or 11, because that is when experimentation begins.

Historical Trauma Linked to Present Struggles
In the Talking Circles, facilitators discuss what happened to their people and help students see the relationship between those events and their own struggles. As students develop trust in the facilitator, they are able to work through personal issues by exploring who they are as Native youths and opening up about their experiences.

"We help them look at their own story," says Lowe. "That's part of the process. They have a story as an individual but also collectively, as a family, as a community, as tribes. What has happened with our youth is a result of the greater trauma that occurred with Indigenous people and communities. Often, nobody has taken the time to listen to them. They need be heard."

Removing the Stigma of Discussing Feelings
Lowe says students often feel there is a stigma around discussing their feelings, that the prevailing attitude is "we keep our business at home." Many have difficulty talking about family issues such as alcoholism or poverty. To promote an atmosphere of trust, students are required to sign a contract promising not to share what they hear with others outside the group. Facilitators stress that words are sacred and confidentiality is essential. Lowe says it is striking how seriously the students have taken this oath. As they begin to unwind and tell their stories, youths gain courage from one another and discover they are not alone. In some instances, school counselors have reported that even "hardcore" students who have participated in these groups have become willing to confide in them.

One of the latest innovations in the Intertribal Talking Circles is the introduction of virtual communication among groups in Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. Each group is led by a Native American Ph.D. nurse junior researcher. After sessions are held separately in each location, youths who live in remote tribal areas have the opportunity to connect with each other. According to Lowe, they see "There's somebody way over there in another part of the country and that they're like us; they have some of the same issues."

Lowe wants to eventually extend the Intertribal Connection Program to other countries, to the Aboriginal Australians or other Indigenous groups in Canada, New Zealand, and Panama. He is clearly excited about this new opportunity to build bridges—between people and across continents.

Asked what the greatest reward of his work has been, Lowe reflects: "The most honoring part of my journey is to see youth thrive. We're a story of survival, but I want us to be a story of thriving versus just surviving. It's been a real honoring experience for me to see the growth, and hopefully we can give hope to the new generation of Indigenous people."