Recruiting Native Nurses, Improving Native Health Through the Native Nations Nursing Summit

By Jennifer Garrett

The University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing is one of several organizations hosting a one-day Native Nations Nursing Summit in Menominee on November 16 as part of an ongoing effort to increase the number of Native nurses in Wisconsin, particularly in American Indian communities.

The free summit this year will focus on educating nurses about culturally responsive and trauma-informed care within Native communities. “There is evidence that many Native communities struggle with the long-term effects of historical trauma,” says Audrey Tluczek, School of Nursing professor and conference coordinator. “Health professionals within those Native communities have taken the lead in developing approaches to care that address community needs and are aligned with traditional tribal values and practices.”

Native Nations Nursing Summit event organizers pose for a group photo

The event will also include information about pathways to the profession for middle and high school students, career advancement opportunities within nursing, and continuing education for registered nurses and advanced practice nurses.


“We hear from Native communities that they want to better understand the various ways into and career paths within nursing—beginning with middle and high school students who are starting to contemplate careers—so that is a big facet of the summit,” says Dr. Mel Freitag, School of Nursing diversity officer and co-director of the Success Through Recruitment/Retention, Engagement, and Mentorship (STREAM) program for Native students.

“We also know that Native nurses want to play a more meaningful role in their healthcare systems, so we are incorporating learning opportunities to promote empowerment and leadership among Native nurses. And right now resilience is a big topic across nursing, so we wanted to address the specifics of how it looks and how you cultivate it in the Native nursing workforce.”

Freitag says these kinds of events geared toward the unique circumstances of Native communities and populations are critical to efforts to recruit more Native nurses and to reduce health disparities in Native communities. Evidence shows that increased diversity within the nursing workforce improves access to health care and leads to better health outcomes across underrepresented groups. Currently, Native American populations experience significant health disparities, with shorter life expectancies and higher rates of many diseases adverse health conditions, such as diabetes and chronic lower respiratory infections, than the U.S. population as a whole. All 12 Wisconsin tribes (11 federally recognized and one state recognized) are federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, meaning those communities lack sufficient access to providers and healthcare services. Further, 90 percent of nurses who provide services in Wisconsin Tribal health facilities are white, while the vast majority of patients are American Indian.

“We believe the Summit increases exposure to the individual and community benefits of nursing practice,” Freitag says. “It, along with our STREAM program and general commitment to the success of Native American students will increase the number of Native students interested in nursing and who will move through the program and ultimately return to their communities to practice. That is the goal.”

Tluczek, who also directs the STREAM program, says increasing the number of Native American nurses can lead to models of care that better reflect the priorities and needs of Native populations. “Through our collaboration with Native American Center for Health Professions, Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Tribal communities and other Tribal organizations, we have come to realize that Native communities value healthcare that combines traditional American Indian healing with western medicine,” Tluczek said. “That is why increasing the number of Native nurses is essential. They possess a dual perspective and deep understanding of the care their communities prefer, trust, and will use.”

Tluczek says increasing the ranks of Native nurses is a priority for the School of Nursing. Tluczek, along with Freitag, launched the STREAM program in July 2017 with a $1.3 million Health Resources and Services Administration grant. The program includes a comprehensive system of support services that will help to admit, retain and graduate 30 Native American nursing students over the next four years.

A group of Native American Veterans pose wearing bright colored ribbon shirts

The School of Nursing is also actively recruiting a tenure-track faculty member who researches chronic disease prevention and management in Native American communities. It is part of a campus cluster-hire effort to recruit faculty across disciplines and foster collaborative research, education, and outreach by creating new interdisciplinary areas of knowledge that cross the boundaries of existing academic departments. The Native American Environment, Health & Community Faculty Cluster Hire seeks researchers to be housed in the School of Nursing, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and the School of Human Ecology.

“The School of Nursing recognizes the need to address the severe health disparities experienced in Native American communities,” Freitag says. “The summit, STREAM, and now the Native American cluster hire show that our commitment to Native American communities and students is strong and a growing priority.”

Other summit partners include the Native American Center for Health Professions, the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, and the Menominee Tribal Clinic as well as the event host Menominee Nation of Wisconsin. Register at for the free event by November 1. Attendance is limited and is expected to fill.