Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson

Areas of Achievement: 
Public Health

Honored By

Honored by: Native American Women of Arizona Arch, UA
Date submitted: April 05, 2012
Gift: General Gift

Honored on the Native American Women's Arch by the Navajo Nation.

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson was raised in Teesto, Arizona, in a home with no electricity or running water. She says 'my father was in construction, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.' She describes her childhood as wonderful amid the hardship. Her relatives lived in the surrounding area. Her home was absent of modern amenities; no television. She describes her upbringing as being with family and entertaining one another.

Dr. Henderson attended boarding school beginning in the fourth grade through high school. The student population was all Navajo. The high school population was small. She was fortunate to have great mentors in high school who encouraged her to do extra and advance work. They imparted a love of science. The opportunities were limited.

Her mother discovered her daughter's interest in medicine when one day she found her in the sheep corral with a stethoscope, listening to the lambs' heart beats, at the age of 3 or 4, she recalls. 'I'd say my grandfather made me the most interested. He was a Navajo medicine man, whom many patients would travel long distances to see. Medicine men are so significant in Navajo culture because they act as physicians and priests simultaneously. I saw my grandfather helping both body and mind in a comprehensive way, and knew that I wanted to continue that work somehow.'

A high school senior she applied to one school, the University of Arizona. She was accepted. Going there was a huge adjustment and challenge. She went from being in the company of so many native classmates who were like family, to being a one percent minority in a school of 35,000 students. So much of the social scene at UA was so foreign and it was very difficult at first. The Navajo students there were instantly drawn to each other. They developed camaraderie and supported one another. She was usually the only native student in the class, especially in the sciences. Her family continued to give her support and encouragement to forge ahead. Dr. Henderson graduated with a degree in biochemistry and took a year off from school.

Dr. Henderson faced a tumultuous period in her years being raised on the Navajo. It's difficult for her even to this day. Her family was evicted from their homeland and forced to relocate to another area. It was part of the government's method in settling a land dispute with the neighboring Hopi tribe. Her family was among 10,000 Navajos who were relocated by the government. The effects were manifested physically, socially, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. From sicknesses and diseases, mental anguish to spiritual loss. Navajos have deep attachments to the land through spiritual ceremonies and enrichment. Children's umbilical cords are buried in the corral signifying the permanent attachment to the homeland that no matter where they trek in the world they will always return home.

Dr. Henderson's biggest obstacle occurred in her first and second year of medical school at Yale University. She was the only Native American. She was a part of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and attended an annual conference where she met the renowned tribal leader Wilma Mankiller. Dr. Henderson was in the midst of giving up and leaving Yale. 'She allowed me to cry for a brief moment,' says Dr. Henderson. 'Patricia, you cannot quit. You may never know in your lifetime why you are at Yale. But there are many more American Indian students who may aspire to go to Yale. Do it for them." These words from the Cherokee tribal leader were the very impetus that kept her in school.

Dr. Henderson initially enrolled in medical school to become a physician. During her last two years she did clinical clerkships with the Indian Health Service. They provided her with opportunities to learn clinical medicine while being confronted with the health problems among Native Americans. Her interest grew beyond medicine. She wanted to reach further and know more about the origins of disease and illnesses among tribal communities and the biological, social and cultural complexities and dimensions of the disease process. It was in the last year of medical school that she realized she could best serve American Indian and Alaska Native people with a career in public health. It had become clear to her that the health problems of American Indians were rooted at many different levels. Native communities need culturally sensitive public health advocates and researchers - individuals who can establish an intimate relationship with them while respecting their culture and traditions. Her background as an American Indian and experiences in medicine and public health equipped her to meet this challenge. She now serve as a vice president at the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, an American Indian nonprofit organization whose primary goal is to improve the health of Indian communities through research, service, and education.

Research on the health of native tribes shows a high prevalence of suicide, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and alcoholism. Dr. Henderson chose to address one issue that causes so many of these problems: commercial tobacco. Projects have included development of culturally tailored cessation programs, development of web-based prevention programs for Native youth, and successfully mobilizing the Navajo Nation towards a commercial tobacco-free legislation. 'We've made it our goal to have commercial tobacco prohibited in all public places in Navajo Nation, including casinos.'

There are 564 federally recognized sovereign Indian nations in the United States, and each is at a different stage of development. It's difficult to generalize about all native people so I'll talk about my own tribe. Many in this country complain about the high unemployment rate of a hovering 10 percent. But think about this: in parts of Navajo Nation the rate is between 80-90 percent. That's not just "bad economic news", it is social injustice. Many of the poorest countries in this country are predominantly Native American. It's been that way for 40 years. If we want to solve any Native health or education issues, we've got to start at the root of the problem: unemployment, she laments.

'I try to make a difference in the lives of people through my personal and professional life,' says Dr. Henderson. 'On a personal level, I try to live a life that is based on the Navajo philosophy, which is to live in harmony. Living this way of life inspires people to live a healthier lifestyle. Professionally, I work with the Indian communities. The work I conduct will hopefully impact the lives of American Indian communities in a positive manner. I also serve as a mentor to many aspiring American Indian students. I make a difference in their lives by having them believe and live their dreams.'