Transforming Native Healthcare: Chenoa Bah Stilwell-Jensen
by Frieda Wiley
In the 1970s, a young father impassioned by the political climate in the United States wanted to give his daughter a name he hoped would temper the tumultuous unrest in the world into which she was born.
He ultimately settled on “Chenoa,” meaning “white dove” in the Algonquin language, relishing the peaceful nature of the gentle birds. He and Chenoa’s mother’s family, added “Bah,” a Diné (Navajo) name meaning “woman warrior,” with the idea that their daughter would one day grow into a fearless woman who fought for peace.
Years later, Chenoa Bah Stilwell-Jensen (Navajo Nation) lives up to her name. The University of New Mexico instructor is a humble, conscientious woman who champions cultural awareness and public health issues affecting the native community—all while maintaining a strong sense of her cultural identity.
While some people reserve specific times to observe their cultural practices in private settings, Stilwell-Jensen carries her culture with her wherever she goes, seeing her cultural identity as a full extension of her life’s purpose. In fact, she introduces herself to new people in Diné, her first language—even when they neither speak nor understand her ancestral tongue. But she doesn’t do it as a form of cultural resistance or isolationism; she does so to connect and engage with others.
“Our greeting in the traditional Diné way is an introduction and protocol of who we are, where we are from, and how we connect with other human beings,” she says. “Greeting people in Diné is how I begin communication and how I honor my ancestors and cultural lifeways.”
Perhaps Stilwell-Jensen’s strong sense of self stems from her bicultural upbringing, which she said helped her identify her purpose early on in her life. Born to a Navajo mother and a father of English and French-Canadian lineage, she split her childhood between rural and urban communities in Tseyahtoh, Corrales and Albuquerque, New Mexico. She affectionately calls both places home. Her close family ties not only shaped her childhood experience, but they also lay the foundation for how she would define her values and the service-oriented career path she would ultimately pursue.
Growing up, she bore witness to relatives who had various illnesses traversing the journey of health. She spent the first 10 years of her life watching her grandmother tackle what she describes as “painful health challenges”—resulting from a lifelong battle with tuberculosis before ultimately succumbing to the disease. The experience profoundly affected the young child and helped shape her perspective on how people could counter adversity with resilience.
Stilwell-Jensen also saw her mother valiantly battle and overcome breast cancer. The experience gave her firsthand exposure to integrative medicine, as her mother routinely incorporated traditional ceremonial practices before engaging in modern medical treatment.
“Through family support, we were able to communicate ways to help her find her strength through a traditional Diné practitioner to lay the foundation of what source of ceremonial or spiritual healing was needed,” Stilwell-Jensen says.
The family relied on the traditional cultural consultations to guide the next steps of the healing process and select the ceremony that Stilwell-Jensen’s mother needed to ease her response to conventional modern treatments. Engaging in traditional ceremonial healing approaches prepared her mother for breast cancer surgery and healing through modern medicine. These experiences awakened Stilwell-Jensen’s sense of empathy, making her keenly aware of the powerful impact honoring cultural practices can have on a person’s health.
“The influential mother and grandmother figures of my life have made me a stronger woman,” Stilwell-Jensen says. “Their experiences have empowered me to listen deeply to people and how they transcend illness through cultural and ceremonial support as well as modern medical support.”
An innovative thinker, Stillwell-Jensen has devoted her career to health education. She word in similar environments, including prevention research at the University of New Mexico and pediatric settings and school-based health science centers. Regardless of where she is employed, she remains focused on one central goal: to provide Native people with supportive resources to enhance their physical well-being.
The New Mexico native’s initial professional endeavor was in quality management for a health plan. She then transitioned into a role as a coordinator for a substance abuse and alcohol prevention program within Albuquerque Public Schools. After a little more than 3 years of service, she co-founded a school, the Native American Community Academy (NACA)—a public community charter school in Albuquerque for grades 6-12. Established in 2005, Stilwell-Jensen’s daughter also attending the institution and graduated in 2019. She would spend more than half a decade there, supporting the school as a community wellness volunteer. During this time, she also worked with NM Appleseed, a nonprofit organization founded by a lawyer striving to improve the lives of the poor and underserved through systemic change.
In addition to teaching a diverse range of communication courses, including intercultural communication, health communication, conflict management and mediation, at the University of New Mexico, Stilwell-Jensen has spent the last 3 years working as a cultural care provider for a community clinic where she focuses on traditional wellness.
The wellness advocate is grateful for American Indian Graduate Center’s contribution to her career development by funding her Masters’ Degree in Community Health Education and for her Doctoral studies in Health and Cultural Communication at the University of New Mexico. She is grateful for American Indian Graduate Center’s academic scholarships and the continual reinforcement for her learning path.
Stilwell-Jensen continues to draw inspiration from her heritage in her tireless quest to thrive in professional environments while supporting her community within the holistic dimension of wellness. Now a mother of a young college student, she wants to pass her teachings on to her daughter as well as her community.
“My driving purpose in life and driving passion is to be of service to humanity and helping people who have been marginalized,” she said. “As I’ve walked my path in life, I’ve done so to honor the teachings of our indigenous lifeways as we all contribute to being of service to humanity throughout the world.”