For Bonnie Duran, it felt like coming home. For two months in 1982, she lived at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal. As a mixed-race Native American, she’d long witnessed the suffering of her community, and what she learned there about Buddhism’s first noble truth—that suffering is pervasive—resonated with her deeply.

A decade later, her mindfulness practice led Duran to pursue a doctoral degree in Public Health from the University of California. Today, Duran is a professor at the School of Social Work and a faculty member of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington.

She is also a faculty member of a graduate program in Indigenous research at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota. As Duran has put it, in order to improve the health and well being in Indigenous communities, she works to “decolonize research.”

As a Native American, she knows what it feels like to be marginalized. Native Americans face disproportionate health problems—including substance abuse and physical and mental illnesses—and are often without access to competent health care.

Health inequities

Duran says public health research on Indigenous peoples has often been done without taking their perspectives into account or seeking their permission. She can cite hundreds of studies that have contributed to health inequities rather than reduce them.

In order to break this cycle, Duran practices community-based participatory research, inviting Indigenous peoples to lead and co-direct the research process.

Instead of pathologizing these communities, community-based research works with Indigenous individuals and organizations to collect data on their strengths. The aim is to revitalize and improve resilience practices that are already in place.

Model of authentic community engagement

Through a number of projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Duran and colleagues created a model of authentic community engagement in health research that was tested on 160 NIH-funded public health research projects.

She has also partnered with tribal colleges and universities on projects to cost-effectively reduce alcohol use and improve academic performance among Indigenous students by determining what factors contribute to their wellness and success.

In addition to her work as a public health researcher, Duran is a Buddhist teacher and co-founder of the People of Color Sangha in Albuquerque and Seattle, and the first Native American to join the Spirit Rock Teachers Council. As a teacher, she focuses on sharing the source of her happiness with others. “I love teaching the dharma. Every single happiness in my life is due to it,” Duran says.

Duran wrote a grant to introduce mindfulness-based stress reduction to the Colville Tribes in Washington and has found that Buddhist practices resonate well with many Indigenous communities. Regardless of external conditions, she believes mindfulness allows people to find healing and peace in their lives.

One project at a time, Duran hopes to improve the health and wellbeing of all marginalized peoples by changing how public health research is collected. “No one knows what the road to wellness looks like better than the Native communities involved,” Duran says. “Their knowledge and practices need to be put at the forefront when we’re doing research.”