OMAHA, NE – Meeting Dr. Jessiline Anderson, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, was a pure joy – she is always up-beat and positive about life. She received my constant questions openly, and she didn’t mind explaining to me the complexities of Native American culture.
Having grown up in Central Texas, I, a Communications graduate student at University of Nebraska at Omaha, was unfamiliar with some of the health issues Native Americans often face. Prior to meeting Dr. Anderson, the only information I knew about Native Americans came from various textbooks that explained just a fragment of their rich and inviting culture.
But, when I walked into her office with a slew of questions I had created for the interview, I not only gained a better understanding of a culture I really knew nothing about, but also an appreciation for a positive outlook on life, something everyone should have.
Dr. Anderson, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, joined the School of Psychology team in 2001. Prior to that, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Creighton University in 1976, a Masters for counseling in 1983, and a Ph.D. from Utah State University in 1999. With an impressive list of honors and awards, published works and professional presentations, she received the 2012 Faculty Service Learning Award.
A member of the Omaha Public Schools Native American Advisory Council, Center for Native Americans board member, and a member of the Omaha Tribal Institutional Review Board, Dr. Anderson is a very active lady.
While teaching several psychology courses at University of Nebraska at Omaha, she is very involved in her own research, which focuses on behavioral health and more specifically, endocrine and psychological disorders. She regularly takes students to visit the Omaha Tribe reservation, a nation centered in North Eastern Nebraska, to focus on suicide prevention, self-esteem, self-continuity, bullying, and substance abuse in Native American peoples.
She regularly attends church, prays, and practices the traditional ways of the Omaha Tribe, including Sun Dance, a religious ceremony, and the sweat lodge, a purification ceremony. As active as she is, and as welcoming as she seems, no one would ever guess she has diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis and hypertension, all of which affect her life in different ways.
Dr. Anderson believes it is her deeply-rooted spirituality that has helped her overcome all of the obstacles in her life. With her mother and stepfather very active in the Native American church, she developed a strong religious foundation growing up. Her stepfather was a Road Man, or leader of the peyote ceremony, and her mother would help prepare meals. Through practicing her faith, Dr. Anderson developed a close relationship with her creator.
Spirituality helped her create a balance in life, which Dr. Anderson believes is an important aspect for staying healthy and remaining optimistic about almost anything – it’s all about the mind and body connection, Dr. Anderson said.
“When we’re taking care of our physical bodies, we also need to be nourishing the mind,” she said.
With most of her older family members passed away, Dr. Anderson was unaware of her entire family history in terms of health for most of her life. What she did know was that her mother, a Native American, and father, an African American, lived with diabetes, and oftentimes, she helped her mother, who also has Rheumatoid arthritis, administer insulin. In addition, of the eight children in the family, one of her half-siblings was diagnosed with diabetes and another is borderline diabetic. It was no surprise to Dr. Anderson when she was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007.
Despite the news, and the prevalence of diabetes, hypertension and cancer in the Native American community, Dr. Anderson decided to take charge of her life.
“When I look around and see all of the issues Native Americans are having, it makes me look at what I’m doing and how I can treat myself better,” she said. “I paid close attention to what and how I was eating and exercising. When I look around and think, I am blessed with what I have. If I let myself get depressed, I could go down very fast. I have to maintain a positive theoretical and cognitive orientation as a psychologist. That’s what keeps me optimistic.”
Doctors are seeing more and more Native Americans diagnosed with health issues, and, according to Dr. Anderson, many believe that these diseases have developed because people have gotten so far away from their traditional eating habits. Native Americans, like the Omaha Tribe who were originally hunters, gatherers and harvesters, have not had equal access to healthy foods.
“The reality is, we have an impoverished environment and community,” Dr. Anderson said. “We have people who cannot afford to eat healthy. When we go to the grocery store, we’re going to buy staple products that are going to last, not fruits and vegetables. I think Native American health depends on where the communities are (located), and additionally, one of the factors that comes into play is how acculturated or assimilated the community is.”
But, it isn’t just Native Americans that suffer from these health problems – everyone is at equal risk, especially with modern advancements and busy schedules making it easier and easier to eat quick junk foods.
Over the past few years, Native Americans have begun to take charge of their health. Many faith-based communities have implemented health task forces to present health-related information to their respective communities, and on the reservation, prevention and awareness programs have begun to take shape, including nutrition classes and diabetic screenings. Recently, the Fred Leroy Health and Wellness Clinic, established in 1998 by the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, was expanded to better serve its community. The clinic, located at 26th and J Streets, is a recognized Indian Health Service provider offering quality medical, dental and auxiliary services to all Native American members of federally recognized tribes.
“Once my students visit the reservation, they understand that it is impoverished, but there is a richness of culture,” Dr. Anderson said. “When we leave, they (the students) want to do more to help. I explain to them that we were asked to do screenings and generate reports, and we weren’t asked to do anything else. Anything else would be a clear imposition of values on a group of people. Sometimes, people see a need and want to jump or rush in and rescue them, but the folks never asked for help. Before you rush in to rescue someone, try to become a part of their culture through exposure. Then, when you make recommendations, they’re more likely to listen.”
Like so many others, Dr. Anderson says she has to make a conscious choice and effort every day of her life to make certain changes or do things differently in order to stay healthy. While it’s not always easy, and sometimes she feels like skipping her medications, surrounding herself with others who share her positive attitude has helped her overcome many hurdles.
Remaining optimistic has delivered promising results – at Dr. Anderson’s last doctor’s office visit, she was told that with a little more weight loss and a continued healthy lifestyle, by the end of this coming January, she could be considered pre-diabetic and may stop taking diabetes medication. No words can describe the hope that radiated from Dr. Anderson’s voice as she delivered this exciting news to me – proof that with a little optimism and effort, things do get better.