Growing up, Spero Manson saw firsthand how obesity, diabetes, and alcohol and substance abuse disproportionately affect the lives of American Indians. His family hails from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota and eventually relocated to the Pacific Northwest.
Although he initially dreamed of a career as a physician, Manson learned he could make a difference in the health of Native communities through research.
He's now the inaugural holder of the Colorado Trust Chair in American Indian Health at CU Anschutz, thanks to a $3 million philanthropic gift in 2015 to help address problems facing American Indian communities in Colorado. Manson, who is Pembina Chippewa, also serves as a distinguished professor of public health and psychiatry and leads the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“We need to build bridges among Native and non-Native advocates, policymakers, funders and health providers. That's one of the major missions of this chair: to be a bridge-builder is to ensure that people understand how they can work jointly to address common needs and priorities.”
For example, Manson and his team helped develop a clinical research partnership with a large urban Indian health care program in Denver to improve its electronic health records system. His team also supports a mobile clinic van that visits Native households in the Denver metro to share important information about COVID-19 testing and care because those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color are more likely to contract, be hospitalized and die from the virus than those who are white.
As one of the nation’s leading authorities on American Indian and Alaska Native health, Manson also collaborates on research, training and programs with 250 Native communities that span rural, urban, reservation and village settings across the U.S.
According to recent census estimates, 50,000 to 60,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native people reside in the Denver metro area, with a much smaller population living in Colorado Springs. Two federally recognized tribes, the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute, live on reservations in the Four Corners area of Colorado.
Manson says collaborative partnerships with local and state organizations are critical to addressing health inequities faced by Colorado’s Native communities, as well as creating a pipeline of future generations of young people from Native communities interested in health sciences research.
“As a health scientist, this has so much meaning for me, working in my community. When I was growing up back in the ’60s and pursuing my undergraduate career, I never had a health care role model who was American Indian or Alaska Native until much later in my work. I think that's why it’s really important to increase the representation of American Indian and Alaska Native people in the health care professions and health care sciences so that younger people have an opportunity to see that there is relevance, leadership and opportunity for them.”