Skip to Content

‘Native Strong': Building Healthy Tribal Communities


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

Citizens of the Navajo Nation like Olivia Roanhorse have long known that good health is more than the sum of its parts.

“Tribal communities take a much larger perspective when they’re thinking about health,” says Roanhorse, a program director at the Albuquerque-based Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation. “Everything is connected; it includes emotional and spiritual components, and they’ve always known that.”

Roanhorse runs the Foundation’s “Native Strong: Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures” program, which seeks to apply a holistic approach to reducing obesity and diabetes among children throughout Indian country.

Raised in Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation, both her parents worked for the Navajo government, which influenced her interest in public service.

She earned an environmental science degree from Colorado College and then lived in Chicago for 10 years, where she worked for various public health organizations and earned a master’s degree in health policy and administration from the University of Illinois-Chicago. But on the lookout for a chance to make a difference back home in the Southwest, she jumped at the chance to work for the NB3 Foundation. Notah Begay III, a PGA Tour star who is also of Navajo descent, started the Foundation in 2005 to promote sports participation and health and wellness education among Native American kids.

“I was really ready to come home and find a position that was Native-led and Native-focused,” Roanhorse explained. “I’ve been very fortunate to land here.” She noted that the Foundation is believed to be the only Native American-led organization focusing on childhood obesity.

The goal of the Native Strong program is to build a “national framework” that can reduce childhood obesity and diabetes among Native children in targeted communities.

Research is a key part of the program, because as Roanhorse noted, more health data specifically focused on Native American populations – including secondary data on factors affecting health, such as employment levels or income inequality – is needed. The program is also working to facilitate communication between communities throughout Indian country, “so we can highlight what is and isn’t working … people tend to stay in their own little communities, so great work was happening but it wasn’t being highlighted.”

The Foundation provides grants to tribes and Native American nonprofits to promote access to healthy food, nutrition education and physical activity. It also offers technical assistance to grantees and partners. A recent workshop, co-hosted by the Foundation and another Native-led group, focused on digital storytelling; eight grantees shared their work via the digital story format and offered each other feedback. “We gave our grantees an idea of how they can communicate their work, advocate with tribal leadership, look at policy changes or just educate the community,” Roanhorse says.

On the Voices for Healthy Kids Strategic Advisory Committee, she says, the Foundation has been excited to play a role in ensuring tribal and Native American involvement in the obesity prevention dialogue, to “make sure our community is part of the discussion.”

And the community focus of organizations such as hers, Roanhorse notes, is key to the success of public health policy: “If policy changes don’t come from the bottom up, from the community, then they’re just a beautiful piece of paper.”