day on HuffPost, we're highlighting one 'Greatest Person' -- an
exceptional individual who is confronting the country's economic
and political crises with creativity, generosity and passion. Today
we feature Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson, a member of the Dine' (Navajo)
tribe. She is Vice President of the Black Hills Center for American
Indian Health, an Native American nonprofit based in Rapid City,
S.D., and is the first Native American woman to graduate from the
Yale School of Medicine. For the past decade Dr. Nez Henderson has
assisted tribal communities across the nation in enacting comprehensive
tobacco control and prevention programs. Her tireless efforts to
change the way Native Americans see and use tobacco, and her work
in advancing the health of Native communities across this country,
is something we all can learn from and be inspired by.
Patricia Nez Henderson, Native American Health Advocate.
Post: Part of what makes you so inspiring today is where you come
from and the path you've taken to get here. Tell us about growing
up on a Navajo reservation.
Dr: Patricia Nez Henderson: I grew up in the small community of
Teesto, in the southern part of the Navajo Nation, in home with
no electricity or running water. My father was in construction,
and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. My childhood was wonderful;
my relatives lived all around me, and since we had no television,
we did so much together to entertain ourselves.
Describe your education before college.
PNH: I went to boarding school starting in the fourth grade through
high school. Before high school, I went to school with mostly Navajo
kids. In high school we were a much smaller population, but were
the only students to board at the school. I was fortunate to have
great mentors in high school, to help me through and permit me to
do extra and advanced work because the opportunities at my school
were fairly limited. They really nurtured a love of science within
When were you first interested in medicine?
PNH: Well my mother would say the first time she knew I was interested
in medicine was when she found me at the sheep corral with stethoscope,
listening to the lambs' hearts beat. I was 3 or 4 years old then.
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.
Going to college can be challenging for anyone leaving home for
the first time. Describe the experience of leaving your reservation
to go to the University of Arizona. What obstacles did you face
during your time there?
PNH: As a senior I applied to one school, the University of Arizona.
Going there was a huge adjustment and challenge. I went from being
in the company of so many native classmates who were like family,
to being a 1 percent minority in a school of 35,000 students. So
much of the social scene at UA was so foreign to me and it was very
difficult at first. The few of us Navajos there were instantly drawn
to each other, and we helped and supported each other. I was usually
the only native student in my classes, especially in the sciences,
but was fortunate to have the support of my family who kept telling
me to stick with it, and not to give up. I graduated with a degree
in biochemistry and took a year off.
What did you do in that year off?
PNH: This is difficult for me to talk about. My family was forced
to move as part of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation, where over 10,000
people were displaced from their homes. Moving is not a concept
widely embraced in the Navajo culture. Navajos often bury their
children's umbilical cords in the land to tie them to it. Obviously,
this was a very traumatizing experience for us, and proved to be
a critical time in my life during which I realized I really needed
to stay on the road of medicine.