The Cherokee Nation’s Lisa Pivec Explains Tribal Public Health Differs From Mainstream Health Care

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Did you grow up as part of the Cherokee Nation?

Yes. I was raised by my mother and grandmother. Higher education was a big part of what my family expected of me. My grandmother used to tell me that the most important thing in my life was what I would be able to contribute to the Nation as a whole. When I was 21, I started an internship with the Cherokee Nation in health…and [I’ve been there since]. I’ve always tried to link together better health with understanding that it’s related to societal determinants—it’s deeply rooted in how we live as Cherokees and within our family and community. 

What kind of societal determinants are you referring to?

It’s about looking at the way that we live and knowing that each of us has a responsibility to take care of one another. So how does that relate to health? First, it’s about making sure basic needs are met: Is there enough food? Do you have shelter? After that, it’s about watching out for one another within our community and thinking about how we can take care of one another. How are the people in our community doing? That thinking is inherent to us—in my mind, we are the original stewards of public health. 

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What does your job entail?

Honestly, a lot of different things. My day usually consists of meeting with different teams within Cherokee Nation—people from public housing, education, health communications, and beyond. My job is to help figure out how we make health a shared value across all of these programs. 

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In what way does working for Cherokee Nation make your job different from someone who may work for another community?

Tribal public health is a relatively new concept. I think what we do differently is we bring self-determination and self-governance to the work we do. So we look at the mainstream and what the CDC is saying we should all be doing, and we ask ourselves how we implement that by putting it through the lens of our Cherokee value system and what’s going on in our community. I think that’s a difference—the focus on community; we really focus on health as a way of keeping our community strong and growing for generations to come. 

Your team started implementing COVID-19 safety recommendations in February of 2020, before many other people did. What inspired you to take it seriously so early on?

I have to give credit to Chief Hoskin. We have leadership that motivates us to do our best for the people every single day. So we started looking at what other places had done during similar pandemics— even small places around the globe. We just started implementing what we could. We are a nation that has persevered. For generations, we have faced tragedy and risen above it. So I think that’s why we were able to really focus early on. 

This article originally appeared in the  March 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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