Northeastern Nebraska is home to the Omaha Nation Indian reservation. Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha, is named for the tribe that lives on more than 12,000 acres that extend into western Iowa. It’s also home for Wehnona Stabler, M.P.H., an Omaha who moved back to her tribal land in the late '90s after losing her mom. Stabler says that the reservation “is still a man’s world, like most Indian communities,” but that fact has not stopped her from energetically pursuing her ambitions and her goal to bring more comprehensive health care resources to her community and other reservations.

RWJF Community Health All-Stars
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholars, fellows and grantees, along with the Community Health Leader award winners, address the health needs of the nation in unique and innovative ways. Whether they are creating healthier environments, bringing needed health resources to underserved communities, diversifying the local health care workforce or generating grassroots programs—they make a difference. This series tells their stories.

A 2007 recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leader (CHL) Award while she was facility director for the Pawhuska Health Center, an Indian Health Service clinic, Stabler has just received a significant promotion. In July she was named Deputy CEO at the Pine Ridge Indian Health Service Hospital in South Dakota. “It’s a wonderful promotion,” Stabler notes, crediting her work at Pawhuska for advancing her career.

Pawhuska is an ambulatory operation where three clinicians, one dentist and one optometrist are part of a staff of 40 that do their best to serve nearly 15,000 people. “The nearest hospital is about an hour or more away in Claremore, Okla.,” Stabler says. “We primarily help people manage diabetes, which is very high here. We also provide acute care for general health and other problems common to our area, such as a recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus.”

During her time at Pawhuska, Stabler worked to make it easier for residents to use the clinic. When she arrived, a construction project to build the clinic and the reservation’s first drive-through pharmacy was a year behind schedule. She pushed hard make sure the project was completed. In addition, Stabler says, “I try to support women in the community in leadership positions and cultural activities or whatever they strive to do.” Her combined efforts led the Oklahoma Federation of Indian Women to name Stabler their American Indian Woman of the Year for 2011.

“I was just so honored that they considered me,” says Stabler, who sees her work as the outgrowth of a natural obligation to her people. “I’ve also been sent to troubleshoot in places in need of leadership to help improve and expand health care resources. I’ve worked for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Clinton, Okla. And I’ve found that no matter where I go, Indian people have many unmet health needs. Every day, as I work, I feel that I am in some small way carrying out the nation’s treaty obligations to our tribes from long ago. When I hear people say, ‘Indians get free care,’ I remind them that we have already paid dearly for that care with our lands, our water and in some cases, our lives.”

Wherever Stabler goes, she says she sees the impact of cultural change on the health of her people. “It’s not a good sign that they’ve just opened a McDonald’s near the reservation because the more non-Indian we become, the higher our rates of diabetes and other illnesses. As I travel across the United States, the tribes that are isolated and have been able to keep their language, their culture and their traditions seem to be the healthiest. Long ago, tribes lived without drugs and alcohol, government subsidies, TVs and computers. Our lives may have been harder, but we lived off the land, which meant a good diet and we walked and rode horses, which kept us active. The fast change in our lifestyle, when we were put on reservations, resulted in diabetes and many other health problems,” Stabler says.

“We will never be able to go back to the life we had before we lost our land, but the more we can preserve of our culture, the more it will help us survive today and in the future,” she adds.

The Benefits of Being a Community Health Leader

Stabler’s CHL award took her by surprise. “I just recall that I was nominated while working for my tribe, the Omaha, as the tribal health director, helping them to create a dialysis unit, adult wellness programs and other projects. I remember Janice Ford Griffin [Community Health Leaders National Program Director] and her team came out here to visit. I thought well, if I get the award, I’ll get a little plaque. I didn’t realize how significant it was until I attended my first CHL meeting. Since that time, becoming a Community Health Leader has opened up so much for me,” she says.

“I’ve met so many people I never would have come in contact with and I’ve learned to be amazed at what one person can accomplish. It’s inspired me to do much more, while opening up a whole network of resources. For example, I was trying to find a way to build a wheelchair ramp to increase access at the clinic and another Community Health Leader was able to give me advice on getting it done.”

Learning what’s going on in other communities and gathering a broader knowledge of the impact of the social determinants of health, through her CHL work, has reshaped Stabler’s approach to her other activities. “Having access to new research is tremendously helpful. I’m thankful that RWJF was willing to look at what the health issues are in Indian country. We are often left out of research and other reports because our numbers are so small. Tribes are often thrown into data as ‘minorities,’ but we are not a minority. Each tribe is a sovereign nation, with its own history, land base and traditions. The Foundation recognizes this difference and has reached out into the Native communities in the proper way. As a CHL, I am proud to be a part of this growing network of amazing people.”

Each year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation selects 10 Community Health Leaders to receive an award. The winners are outstanding and otherwise unrecognized individuals who overcome daunting odds to expand access to health care and social services to underserved populations in communities across the United States. The program aims to elevate the work of these unsung heroes through enhanced recognition, technical assistance and leadership development opportunities.