Talk to feature Native American alumna discussing Yale, and tribal health

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Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson
Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson

Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson ’94 M.P.H., ’00 M.D. knew she wanted to go into medicine when she was a just 3 or 4 years old, and could often be found pressing a stethoscope to the lambs in the corral to hear their beating hearts. And even as a child, she says, she was called to use her skills in science and healing to address the health inequities that plagued tribal communities. “I’ve always been pulled back to my roots,” Henderson says.

Henderson is the first Native American woman to graduate from Yale School of Medicine, and she will return to campus on Monday, Sept. 17, for a conversation with Yale President Peter Salovey about her experiences as an indigenous woman, her time at Yale, and her work with the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health in South Dakota where she is vice president. The talk is part of the President’s Women of Yale Lecture Series.

Until high school, Henderson lived in a small community called Teesto in the southern part of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, surrounded by family; her home had no electricity or running water. Her grandfather was a celebrated medicine man who inspired her decision to study health. Henderson applied to just two graduate schools — Stanford University and Yale — and was accepted to both. She visited the two campuses before making her decision and says when she arrived in New Haven “something said, ‘This is where you’ll stay.’” 

At Yale, Henderson was drawn to public health research and understanding “the whole human experience.” That led her to join her husband at Black Hills, the organization he founded in 1998 to address the health needs of the Northern Plains tribes. “It’s a research-intensive organization,” she says. “We go out into the tribal Indian communities and see where the needs are.” High rates of tobacco use among tribes — and with it, high rates of cancer, heart disease, and asthma —  is one of the public health challenges they have worked to improve, says the alumna.

The center hires local tribal members who speak the language and understand the culture and political process, and that, she says, has allowed them to gain trust and make real progress. She notes that the Navajo Nation used cigarettes in their ceremonies for a long time, but after Black Hills worked closely with them, the tribal leaders changed course and passed a policy that forbids cigarette use at these events. “It was such a great feeling, having that impact,” says Henderson. The Navajo Nation represents 17 million acres and over 350,000 people living between Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

Henderson is also an advocate for data sovereignty among Native American people, who she says have contributed significantly to our understanding of certain health and disease trends such as diabetes. “Any data we gather belongs to the tribe,” she says. We have much more to learn from tribal people, Henderson says. “There’s so much focus on the deficits. But we can also learn from tribes about resiliencies and incorporate that into the work that we are doing.”

The President’s Women of Yale Lecture Series featuring Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson ’94 M.P.H., ’00 M.D. will be held Sept. 17, 3:30-4:45pm at the Yale Center for British Art. Reception immediately to follow. The session will be recorded and posted on the Yale YouTube channel.