Living her dreams: Tribal member passionate about representation, inclusion, and health

by Feb 22, 2024COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments


One Feather Asst. Editor


Inclusion, representation, and health – both physical and mental, are all passions of Dr. Natalie Welch who works daily to improve these in Indian Country.  A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Dr. Welch has worked with some of the tops in the sports business.

“Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with health and the connections between the mind, body, and spirit,” she said.  “I was never a great athlete, but I fell in love with long-distance running because of its benefits to my mental health. I’m really passionate about using sport as a platform for solving bigger mental health and societal issues.”

Inclusion, representation, and health – both physical and mental, are all passions of Dr. Natalie Welch, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and executive director of Rise Above, who works daily to improve these in Indian Country. (Photos contributed)

Dr. Welch was the valedictorian of the Cherokee High School Class of 2005.  She followed that up with a bachelor of science degree in sport management from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville (UT) in 2009 and a master’s of sport business management from the University of Central Florida in 2011.  She completed her doctoral degree in sport management at UT in 2019.

“After grad school I interned with the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. Immediately following that I moved to Beaverton, Ore. to work with Nike N7 at the Nike World Headquarters. Following a year with N7, I transitioned to the agency side and worked for nearly five years at the worldwide creative powerhouse Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Ore.”

Her work ethic is strong and has a purpose.

“Honestly, I’ve always been driven, and I don’t quite know what it is. I guess it’s a combination of things, growing up with an extremely passionate and supportive family has been huge. I think having Native representation is crucial, but I want to go beyond representation to where we feel like our people have a say in our futures. I’ve been able to live out my dreams and do so many amazing things, I feel like too many of our people have poverty of the imagination and I want to change that. I want every Native kid to know they can achieve whatever they can dream. Our ancestors sacrificed for us to be able to live our best lives.”

Dr. Welch was named executive director of Rise Above on Thursday, Feb. 22 and is also an assistant professor at Seattle University where she teaches in the graduate Sport and Entertainment MBA program.  “It is very similar to the graduate program I attended, with a focus on diversity, inclusion, and equity. I teach marketing, consumer behavior, and sport marketing as well as serve as faculty advisor to the Women in Business Club. I’ll always be passionate about advocating for underrepresented groups’ participation in sports, including the business side of sports.”

She describes Rise Above as “a Native-owned and operated nonprofit organization that engages with Indigenous youth by exposing them to multigenerational and culturally oriented prevention programs”.

She adds, “Native basketball legend Jaci McCormack co-founded Rise Above with the idea of using basketball to transform young lives—like it did hers. Jaci’s story—from growing up on the Nez Perce Reservation to overcoming adversity to play college basketball at Illinois State University—inspires hope, hard work and connection in Native youth.

Rise Above did a talk in Cherokee earlier this year entitled “Suicide Prevention & Mental Health Workshop” and also hosted a separate basketball clinic for children.  The event featured McCormack as well as basketball star Lakota Beatty who is a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and who also has Dakota and Gros Ventre heritage.

Dr. Welch, standing center, talks to youth from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians at a recent basketball clinic held on the Qualla Boundary that was hosted by Rise Above.

Dr. Welch commented, “Sports is such a great tool to not only reach kids but the entire community in Indian Country because of the way it brings people together for a common purpose. We see the way our people pack the gym (field/court) and take so much pride in sport so it provides a great platform to reach kids (and parents) about other issues such as mental health, bullying, abuse, suicide, etc. I think for Indian Country sport is another form of cultural expression, just like language and arts.”

She says that middle school age is the most crucial in reaching youth.  “It’s a time when kids are going through a lot of changes and figuring out who they are (or aren’t). Native kids have been hearing the same story about themselves for a long time, and we find at this age those stories start to really have an impact on their self-esteem and self-worth. Through our work, we conducted a youth survey and found that 30 percent of middle schoolers self-reported that they had attempted or thought about harming themselves. That’s self-reported so that number is most likely even higher. So basically at least 1 in 3 Native middle schoolers is considering self-harm. That’s completely unacceptable.”

Dr. Welch said that being honest with the youth is paramount.  “I’ve learned that authenticity and relationships are everything. An organization isn’t going to do well if they aren’t truly focused on kids. Having no ego is a huge part of being able to have a meaningful impact. Our Native youth deserve the best and Rise Above works to give them that.

Any time you see a behavior change, even something as simple as a haircut or clothing change could be a sign of an underlying struggle. Who we surround ourselves with is also very important and could be a sign of a bigger issue. It’s not usually as stereotypically obvious as it may seem. It’s never a bad thing to ask someone if they are ok.”

In talking about what can be done locally and nationally in Indian Country to improve overall health, Dr. Welch noted, “First, we have to be better about talking about mental health and our feelings. We’ve been conditioned to not talk about our feelings, especially the bad or negative ones and our communities think to be tough you have to set aside those tough feelings. We can only make progress if we talk about the struggles we are going through. On a larger level, there needs to be more resources for our people to feel like they can be heard, safe spaces and trustworthy people.”