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Arizona researchers investigate interdisciplinary health

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Photographer: Tomas Castelazo

“Traditional Indian Medicine: American Indian Wellness” is not your typical textbook.

Patrisia Gonzales, associate professor of Mexican American studies and American Indian studies, is not your typical professor.

As the granddaughter of Kickapoo, Comanche and Macehual peoples, Gonzales grew up surrounded by traditional healers and spent many years teaching and speaking on local, national and international levels about how traditional medicine and Western health care can work together.

Gonzales teaches two classes, American Indian Medicine and Wellness: Traditional and Contemporary Practices of Health and Wellness, and Mexican Traditional Medicine.

As far as she knows, very few teach in her style, which pulls from the roughly 500 native tribes in the U.S. She’s also the first to create a textbook on the subject.

“I found books that are excellent but no textbooks, nothing with teaching prompts,” Gonzales said.

The book is divided into nine sections with topics from mental health to plants, and is divided into units featuring articles from various native and non-native thinkers.

“I wanted it to be coming directly from native teachings,” Gonzales said. “It’s nice to see how native thinkers approach this. There are a lot of links to native produced content, like videos.”

The book is designed to be used in Gonzales’ classes, which have been full since they began in 2010 but can also be used by an independent learner.

“The goal is to make people really understand the values behind the practices, because the practices vary,” Gonzales said. “They’re very much place-based, expressed in all the elements, with an understanding of creation and the creator. It’s the values that endure.”

Those values include respect for the Earth, maintaining balance, reciprocity and  connecting with others and the environment.

“We talk about sustainability, but part of that is not taking too much—reciprocity,” Gonzales said.

With the nature of the class, Gonzales is careful to discuss appropriation.

“People will often ask about the practices, but it’s about the values,” Gonzales said. “We want to respect the teachings, not copy the practices. We talk about appropriation. We learn cultural competency.”

Two-thirds of the students in the class now are in the health sciences, according to Gonzales. She believes all health sciences students should be exposed to these systems of values before they graduate.

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Casey Lindberg is a postdoctoral research associate at the UA Institute on Place and Wellbeing (UAIPW), which works to understand the role of the built environment in human health and wellbeing—another integrative view of humans and environment.

Lindberg teaches Health and Wellbeing in the Built Environment: A Tour of the Senses and Beyond, and also believes that integrative methods of thinking are vital for students. 

“I think this kind of course should be required for all design students,” Lindberg said. “It’s not an easy thing. We’re really taking about a cultural change in defining what sustainability is.”

That shift means looking at the carbon footprint of buildings and the relationship between the building and occupants, similar to Gonzales’ angle of relationships between humans and environment.

“Buildings should be built for people, but often they’re primarily built for aesthetic or art,” Lindberg said.

Some elements that can affect health and wellbeing include lack of air circulation, not enough light, too much noise or dangerous chemicals and gasses.

“Each of those elements is each its own field of study that’s evolving right now,” Lindberg said. “What the field is evolving into is how to optimize design for health and wellbeing. That could be different for different environments.”

For a learning setting, you might want it quiet, with a view of nature—but not too quiet.

“Noise can have a negative impact, but sometimes you still want some kind of noise,” Lindberg said. “Daylighting [using natural light to illuminate interiors] is something that’s been pretty clear for a while that it’s good for you, for your circadian rhythm, but it’s still not done very well.”

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Lindberg said common issues are many windows, but all on one side of the room, or poor light distribution, making it too bright and hot, causing people to pull down the shades and defeat the purpose.

He works to develop office layouts promoting health and wellbeing, using the new technology of wearable sensors that measure heart rate, physical activity, light and noise, among other things.

“Before you had to rely on survey data, which is really important and still part of the picture, but having sensor data is the new wave of the future, and we’re kind of leading the way,” Lindberg said.

The UAIPW combines expertise from UA units such as the College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture, Eller College of Management, psychology, medicine and the Center for Integrative Medicine, working to improve design students’ scientific literacy for evaluating claims.

“Architects and designers are good at knowing a little bit about a lot of things to act as a go-between for different parties, but historically have been lacking scientific literacy,” Lindberg said. “We think it could be a powerful tool in their arsenal.”

Lindberg is helping develop a new Master of Science track for architecture, based on health and wellbeing.

“It’s growing really fast, here at the University of Arizona, nationwide and worldwide,” Lindberg said. “Talking with current architects, they say this knowledge is a big thing they’re looking for in designers they’re hiring.”

Gonzales and Lindberg both foresee the overall trend toward more demand for integrative thinking and knowledge continuing to rise.

Gonzales is planning on another textbook, on pre-Columbian medicine, but not for two years, after she’s finished her revisions and tweaks.


Follow Marissa Heffernan on Twitter.


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