Del Yazzie

Summer03-4 Del Yazzie, Navajo, MPH, is currently a medical student at the University of Arizona. When this article was originally published, he was training director at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for American Indian Health.

Building Native Capabilities in Public Health

Del Yazzie, Navajo, MPH, is dedicated to improving the health of Native communities. “Native people deserve better health care, better health policies, better funding for Indian health programs and more involvement of Native people in creating and administering health programs that address their community health needs,” says Yazzie. “Health is a right, not a privilege.”

With a master’s degree in public health, Yazzie currently is the training director at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Center for American Indian Health. His major responsibility is helping to build a national training program for Native American scholars, faculty, and health care workers who want to enhance their knowledge and skills in public health. Yazzie’s tasks include providing training to Native health workers and others and recruiting indigenous people into Hopkins’ graduate programs in public health. This fall Yazzie will enter medical school so that he can enhance his own capacity to improve the health of his community.

Training Health Workers

Yazzie and his colleagues hold regular training sessions for the up to 80 field workers on the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Reservation who serve on projects linked to the Center for American Indian Health. Almost a dozen of these workers are family health educators with the Family Spirit Project. Most of the others are involved in various biomedical research projects that address the special health needs of the people. The majority of the health workers are members of the two reservations.

The field workers receive training in public health from a variety of experts. Yazzie devotes most of his time to training workers in a leadership model that he and his colleagues developed. The model is based on traditional wisdom “The focus of our training is on how to be a leader and a role model in your community; how to set an example for your peers and your community,” says Yazzie. “To do this you have to figure out who you are inside and where you come from. On a personal level you have to set goals and figure out how to accomplish them. You also to have a vision for your community and know how to set and accomplish goals on the community level.”

Yazzie notes, “The field staffs have been very receptive to the leadership training. They reflect on the fact that as they were growing up their grandparents or parents mentioned similar ideas about having goals and visions for yourself and for your own people. Doing something for the benefit of your people is a traditional value.”

A Native American Course

Yazzie also helped coordinate and administer the weeklong, interdisciplinary Native American Course held at Hopkins. According to Yazzie, “The emphasis is on working at the front line with Native American people and communities to help them solve their problems, using culturally sensitive interventions. We brought in about 50 Native community people, including community leaders, health professions, administrators of health programs, traditional healers, and tribal council members. The participants talked about the problems in their communities, including diabetes, alcoholism, suicide, homicide, and depression. They also talked about the treatment and preventive strategies they’re using to deal with these problems. I learned a lot. The participants gave the course high marks.”

Native Vision Camp

Since 1996, the Center for American Indian Health has run the Native Vision Program in partnership with the NFL Players Association and the Nick Lowery Charitable Foundation. One of the elements of this program, which promotes healthy minds, healthy bodies, and healthy families, is a camp for Native youth. Former NFL players, NBA players and other athletes run the sports clinic. In the summer of 2002, Del and his colleagues also conducted computer-based leadership workshops for the 800 youth attending the camp. “We taught Native youth about setting life and educational goals as well as creating personal visions that have intrinsic value to them,” says Yazzie. “We also talked about the problems as well as the positive aspects that exist within their communities.”

Path into Public Health

“I grew up in a small rural community called Cove”, says Yazzie. “It’s on the Navajo Nation about 50 miles from Shiprock. When I was 7, my father died from lung cancer. He worked in the nearby uranium mines. No one informed him and others of the risks of working in these poorly ventilated mines where they were exposed to uranium radiation. When the traditional Navajo healing ceremonies alone were not improving my father’s health, I remember trying to research the effects of radiation exposure on the lungs. Using an outdated health book at my elementary school, I located the organs of the body and read about what they do. That’s where my interest in health began.”

“I grew up with 5 brothers and a sister. My mother raised us by herself. She had tremendous emotional and spiritual strengths, and she was courageous and extremely resilient. Many of my friends grew up in single parent homes. Their fathers had also died because they were trying to make a living in the mines. My role models were strong, capable, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.”

Father Figures

Several “father figures and role models” supported Yazzie. He met his first male role model when he attended Wingate High School, a boarding school just outside of Gallup. “My basketball coach and school principal, Adam Bull, Choctaw, had an enormous influence on me. He instilled in me a sense of security, which represented my sense of worth, my identity, my emotional anchorage, my self-esteem, and my basic personal strength. He also instilled in me basic personal values of being a good, responsible person, a role model for Native youth. And he taught me how to set personal goals.” Bull also guided Yazzie in applying to University of New Mexico where he was accepted.

Adjusting to college and an urban environment was a struggle for Yazzie. The struggle was compounded by “excessive family responsibilities and encountering cultural misperceptions.” Yazzie also realized that his academic preparation had been poor. Thankfully, Robert Glew, a professor of biochemistry came into his life. “He gave me unwavering financial, educational, social and emotional support. He groomed me in terms of my professional development. He directed a program called Minority International Research Training Programs, which was funded by the National Institute of Health. I was accepted into that program. For 3 consecutive summers I spent 10 weeks in Africa – first in Nigeria, then Zimbabwe, and then Niger. I did small nutrition-related projects, including analyzing the nutritional content of ‘famine food.’ I also conducted other projects on malnutrition, hypertension, and sickle cell anemia.”

Collaborating with Dr. Glew and other colleagues, Yazzie wrote 6 papers about this research that were published in scientific journals. Yazzie was the first author of 5 of these papers.

When Yazzie graduated from the University of New Mexico with a BS degree in biochemistry, his cousin, Dr.
Ray Reid, Navajo, was in the audience. After the ceremony, Yazzie met Reid for the first time. Reid, who was to become one of Yazzie’s “biggest role models,” asked Yazzie what he planned to do with his life. Yazzie said he wasn’t sure.

Yazzie returned home to Cove. “Two weeks after my graduation I was helping my grandmother herd her sheep and cattle up the mountain to the summer sheep camp when we saw my cousin, Raymond Reid, driving towards us. He stopped and talked with us. He told me about Dr. Mathuram Santosham, who is professor of pediatrics and international health at Hopkins and founded and directs the Center for American Indian Health. He said he had been working with Dr. Santosham on infectious disease related health issues and other projects for decades. He said that next week, Dr. Santosham would be visiting the Center’s field site at Shiprock. My cousin suggested that I meet with Dr. Santosham and perhaps consider doing an MPH at Hopkins. He asked if I had a resume to show Dr. Santosham. I said, 'No.' He said, ‘Draft one and bring it to show it to Dr. Santosham.’”

“The following week I met with Dr. Santosham. We went over my resume, and he suggested that I submit an application to Johns Hopkins.” Santosham became another important father figure for Yazzie. He supported Yazzie during his two years in the MPH program. When Yazzie received his degree, Santosham hired him on at the center.

Medical School and Beyond

Yazzie will be attending the University of Arizona School of Medicine this fall. “It’s the logical culmination of my experiences,” he says. “Growing up in the midst of poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism and losing my father at an early age, I realized that obtaining an education was the only way to understand these problems and to bring about change.” In his present position, Yazzie has been helping to bring about change. However, by continuing on to medical school and then to a residency, possibly in primary care and rural medicine, Yazzie hopes to be in an even better position to make changes that will improve the health of his people.

“I’d like to return home and set up a clinic in Cove. Using my public health background, I’d like to establish a center that will promote the health of the Cove community through culturally appropriate strategies for disease prevention as well as health models and programs. I’d also like to provide the youth with guidance regarding attaining higher education.


Yazzie feels there are many opportunities for indigenous people who enter the field of public health. “Many organizations (private and public) are in need of qualified Native people who want to return to their communities and use their training to better the lives of their people, ” he notes.

For people who want to consider careers in public health, Yazzie suggests, “Find people who will support you and give you proper guidance. I believe we must maintain our commitments within our indigenous communities to be supportive of each other. Together, we are strong and capable. We are not the sum of our disparities. We can enter a broad arena as brothers and sisters – on our path to building better health and healthy communities.”
This article was first published in the Summer 2003 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Tina Santiago, Coushatta.)