Dee Ann DeRoin, MD, MPH, Co-Chair, Kansas Tribal Health Summit
The cover photo was taken in the Flint Hills north of Strong City by Arthur H. Davis and has been reprinted with his permission.
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Sunflower Foundation > 2018 Annual Report > Features > Dee Ann DeRoin, MD, MPH, Co-Chair, Kansas Tribal Health Summit
For the past several years, the Sunflower Foundation has endeavored to connect in a more meaningful way with the work of the state’s four sovereign Native nations. The foundation’s guide for this journey has been and continues to be Dee Ann DeRoin, MD, MPH. A strong, empathetic Native American physician, she is an enrolled member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska. She is a public health educator at heart, a teacher, a mentor and a passionate advocate. Dr. DeRoin’s advocacy can best be described as bridge building – bringing diverse people, organizations and cultures together despite their past aggressions, their challenging political landscapes and sometimes disregard for the value and importance of cultural heritage by those with whom she hopes to partner. It is because of this bridge – and Dr. DeRoin’s unwavering commitment to bring good health and better opportunities to Native peoples – that Sunflower is able to partner and support the remarkable work of the Tribal Health Summit Planning project.
An Advocate is Born at the Intersection of Heritage and Passion
Born in rural Nebraska just 70 miles west of her father’s Iowa tribal reservation, Dr. DeRoin is one of five children, the youngest by 14 years. Her father, born in 1891, had to leave the reservation for steady work with the railroad in order to support the family during the Great Depression. He died of heart disease, at the age of 56, when she was an infant. Although her mother left school at the age of 15, she instilled in Dr. DeRoin a lifelong love of learning and always told her, “you will go to college.”
She moved with her mother to California when she was in her early teens; it was there that she met one of her early mentors, her high school dean of students, who was a first-generation Japanese-American who had been confined in the World War II internment camps. He felt a kinship to her family’s reservation heritage; he encouraged her academic pursuits; he instilled in her a passion for learning; and, he embodied how one’s past can positively shape the future.
After high school, her path led her to the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) where she helped establish the Native American Student Association and the Native American Studies Department. Following college graduation, she worked for the local Community Action Program, working primarily with minority populations in Santa Clara County, including Native Americans who had largely been moved to the area as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs “relocation program” of the 1950s and 1960s. This work was the beginning of what would be a lifetime of advocacy for disenfranchised communities.
Fueled by this passion for service and advocacy, she returned to UCB for a masters of public health, an experience she would later call “one of the best educational opportunities I ever had.” The program introduced her to public health and what would eventually become the concept of social determinants of health, key learnings that she brought back to Kansas at the Indian Health Service and other tribal health programs.
These early experiences solidified what she already knew – that she wanted to practice family medicine in a Native community. That dream became a reality in 1978 when she graduated from the Stanford University School of Medicine. During residency, Dr. DeRoin worked extensively with Native populations across the Northwest, Alaska and Montana, eventually ending up at Haskell Indian Junior College Health Clinic in Lawrence, Kansas – a place where her own grandmother was one of the first students in 1884.
For over 20 years, Dr. DeRoin was a practicing primary care physician and a passionate health education advocate working at Haskell and the University of Kansas Watkins Student Health Center. She left full-time practice in 2001 and began a distinguished consulting career with a significant focus on women’s health. Through this work, Dr. DeRoin amplified her advocacy efforts – helping to establish the Four Tribes Women’s Wellness Coalition in Kansas; expanding partnerships with the National Indian Women’s Health Resource Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma; and providing guidance to Indian Health Services through the Women’s Health Steering Committee. Today, Dr. DeRoin remains committed to building partnerships for improved health, providing guidance and technical assistance to those who seek her direction, while striving to hone her skills as a social justice advocate.
Leading for Change: Relationships First
Dr. DeRoin is a fierce proponent of partnership building. She knows the complexities of bringing representatives from four different tribal nations together with different cultures, ideas, priorities and resources. Her leadership can be described as dignified and quiet.
Nowhere is this power of partnership better illustrated than Dr. DeRoin’s work leading the Kansas Tribal Health Summit project. Now approaching its seventh year, this dedicated coalition of tribal health advocates represents the four sovereign nations in Kansas: the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska. Dr. DeRoin understands that change is achieved not just by decisions and actions, but through building relationships over time.
Over the years, under the skilled leadership of co-chairs Dr. DeRoin and Zach Pahmahmie, Vice Chair, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Tribal Council, the health coalition plans an annual summit for the Kansas tribal communities as well as targeted programming for each tribe. The annual summit allows tribal leadership and community members to learn from other Native health experts as well as each other. Throughout the year, specific programming ranges from workshops on the technical aspects and ethics of gathering tribal health data, to culturally appropriate cooking and nutrition education, to family-friendly classes on childhood development. The diversity of health topics not only allows each tribal community to pinpoint their specific needs – it opens even more opportunities for productive partnerships with external agencies and entities.
At the heart of her advocacy efforts is a tenacity and deep-seated feeling that all people deserve the opportunity to receive quality health care, regardless of background or place. Through her life’s work, she embodies the importance of culture and its integral role in creating communities where healthy choices are available to all.