In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we spoke to Lisa Scarton, PhD, RN, assistant professor in the Family, Community and Health Systems Science department at the College of Nursing and a member of the Choctaw Nation, to learn about her research and how she celebrates her heritage. Scarton’s research focuses on Type 2 diabetes and cancer-related health disparities in underserved populations, with a special focus on American Indian populations. We were also joined by Brendan David-John and Mikaela David-John, two of the co-founders of Gator AISES, the only UF student organization solely dedicated to promoting Indigenous cultures.
Brendan is a fifth-year College of Engineering computer science PhD candidate and student vice president of AISES. Mikaela is a recent College of Agriculture and Life Sciences family, youth and community sciences master’s alumna and AISES co-adviser. Scarton serves as the faculty advisor for Gator AISES.
Dr. Scarton, what does Native American Heritage Month mean to you?
Scarton: As we proudly say in my Choctaw language “Chahta sia hoke!” I am Choctaw! I am proud to be Choctaw, and I am proud of my tribe. I embrace and honor my culture every day through sharing our traditions and through the strength of the Choctaw people.
What does Gator AISES mean to you?
Brendan: A common thing for Indigenous peoples to experience is a loss of heritage. But one thing that’s been great to see is faculty and students find ways to share their heritage. Having something in common is incredibly impactful for Indigenous students that are typically isolated in the academic environment.
Dr. Scarton, how do you celebrate your heritage during this month or otherwise?
Scarton: For me, celebrating my heritage through recognizing and honoring the rich and diverse American Indian cultures and traditions is not a singular event nor a one-month experience. It is part of who I am. Throughout the year, I attend local events and regional/national presentations and reflect upon my heritage through meditation and storytelling with my family.
How does Gator AISES help Indigenous students connect with their cultural heritage?
Mikaela: Gator AISES holds many different cultural events to help its members feel inspired and uplifted. We hold several guest speaker events that allow students to hear a variety of Indigenous peoples and cultures. Gator AISES is also a resource for students to become more connected with the Indigenous community at UF, we often host community service events and cultural celebrations to bring students together. All of these events go a long way to help Indigenous students tap into a supportive environment.
Dr. Scarton, what led you to become a nurse researcher?
Scarton: As a child, I helped my grandmother care for family members within our community, and as an adult I provided care for my grandmother. I saw first-hand the negative impact Type 2 diabetes had on family and community members. As a health disparities nurse researcher, I want to help American Indians and people of color move toward health equity. Racial and ethnic minorities experience profound health disparities grounded in historical trauma, discrimination, lack of access to health care and inadequate access to food. My goal is to develop interventions that will lead to health equity and improved health outcomes.
How do you hope Gator AISES will support Indigenous students who come on campus in the future?
Brendan: As Indigenous students, we are often used to seeing support disappear, but this organization is with you for a lifetime. Everything, from seeing our cultural heritage openly celebrated through dance to seeing other individuals who look like and have the same shared experience as me really allowed me to find a “home” within AISES as a national organization. It’s my hope that all of Gator AISES actions will lead to continued support for students in successive generations.
Dr. Scarton, how do you encourage the next generation of students of Indigenous cultures?
Scarton: After first arriving at UF in 2016, I wanted to connect with other Indigenous faculty and students. In 2019, I was approached to serve as a faculty advisor for Gator AISES. I am proud to serve as a mentor for Indigenous students, helping them create a community at UF.
Mikaela, what does having an Indigenous faculty mentor mean to you?
Mikaela: Having Dr. Scarton as a mentor is an inspiration. Even though we come from different tribes, sharing a cultural connection with her is incredibly powerful — it shows me I can do what I previously thought was impossible. I found my way through AISES and through Dr. Scarton empowering us to pursue our future careers.
Find Gator AISES events here!
Learn more about Gator AISES here!