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Anthropologists tackle health disparities at national meeting

December 9, 2008 -- A play about the life of a diabetic Yurok woman and two films about HIV/AIDS in Tanzania were among the presentations given by SF State anthropologists at this years' American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting.

Anthropology has long provided a rich understanding of humanity, and anthropologists look to apply this knowledge to improve people's lives. Moving toward a more inclusive, engaged and collaborative anthropology was the theme of the annual AAA meeting held in San Francisco in November.

Mariana Ferreira, associate professor of anthropology, presented a one-act play, drawing on her decades of research on diabetes among indigenous peoples.

Photograph of Mollie Ruud, the Yurok fisherwoman whose life story unfolds in the play by San Francisco State professor Mariana Ferreira.Mollie Ruud, the Yurok fisherwoman whose life story unfolds in Mariana Ferreira's one-act play.

"When I pop a pill I feel like I'm a slot machine," said Ferreira, reading the part of Mollie Ruud. The play tells the life story of Ruud, a fisherwoman on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Northern California. Ferreira worked closely with Ruud for 10 years as part of her research.

"Mollie told me her life history through a diabetic lens," said Ferreira, a medical anthropologist who suggests that diabetes originates in situations of poverty and trauma. "Mollie grew up in the days when American Indian children were rounded up in cattle trucks and taken to boarding school to learn how to be 'proper citizens.' Many were beaten and treated badly in the process. Later in life many women like Mollie developed diabetes."

While Ferreira uses theater in her teaching and research, Peter Biella, associate professor of anthropology, uses film to bring otherwise unavailable health messages to Tanzania's Maasai people. At the Visual Research Conference, part of the AAA meeting, Biella presented two films about HIV/AIDS in the Maasai community.

A still from Peter Biella's film 'Maasai Migrants' shows a Maasai elder, displaced in the city of Dar es Salaam.

A still from Peter Biella's film "Maasai Migrants" shows a Maasai elder, displaced in the city of Dar es Salaam.

Biella produced the films in summer 2008 in collaboration with nonprofit organizations in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. These Maa language films help the Maasai community reflect on the dangers of traditional sexual practices and learn about the threats of alcoholism and HIV faced by Maasai migrants who move to the capital.

"Applied anthropology means we see what good cultural research can do in the world," Biella said. Over the next three years, Biella will direct students in an SF State summer field school in Tanzania to produce additional applied anthropological films as part of the Maasai Migrants Project.

Also at the AAA meeting, Associate Professor of Anthropology James Quesada moderated a panel titled "Latino Migrant Health in Troubled Times." A critical medical anthropologist, Quesada examines the social factors that affect the distribution of ill health, particularly among migrant day laborers.

Professor of Anthropology Sarah Soh presented a paper about the role of non-governmental organizations in coordinating reparations for "comfort women" survivors of the Asia Pacific War. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Cynthia Wilczak presented a paper about using skeletal markers to determine an individual's daily activities and lifestyle.

-- Elaine Bible


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