MU professor’s link to Cherokee community powers her research | Local

COLUMBIA — Her father has long hair, doesn’t wear nice clothes and never told her what she couldn’t do.

Whenever he saw a situation he considered unjust — in a grocery store, the post office or a restaurant — he intervened. Melissa Lewis, associate professor at MU’s School of Medicine, said as a child she felt embarrassed having a parent who was “an activist in every setting.”

But then she grew up and realized he was right. “You’re supposed to to step up and take care of people,” she said. 

Ronald G. Lewis, Melissa’s father, was the first Native American to earn a doctorate in social work. He was recognized as a social work pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers in 1974 and a longtime advocate on Native American issues. 

As a medical researcher and scholar, Lewis is following a similar path as she advocates for a more holistic way of providing health care. For her, health isn’t just what happens at a microbiological level; it encompasses a person’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Native people, she said, are much more likely to see health in that way. 

Lewis came to MU from the University of Minnesota -Duluth. Being here, she said, has allowed her to be closer to her tribe in Oklahoma — the Cherokee. Her current research is based on a bike ride the tribe has been doing since 1984 called Remember the Removal. She’s evaluating the impact of the program from a physical and behavioral health perspective of those who have participated.

A deeply spiritual journey

The annual event brings together 18- to 25-year-old members of the tribe for a ride from New Echota, Georgia, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It follows one of the routes of the Trail of Tears which was etched painfully into memory in the summer of 1839 when an estimated 17,000 Cherokees were forced by the U.S. government and military…

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