A UI student keeps culture alive by pursuing altruistic profession.
University of Iowa student Jennifer Nesahkluah is helping American Indian families with a basic need—generating heat.
She remembers huddling with her own family in one bed for warmth during cold winter nights growing up in Anadarko, Okla., when the family's electricity was cut off.
Even more memorable, Nesahkluah says, were the 2008 blizzards that slammed the Dakotas, leaving many without electricity and other basic supplies, especially elders who had to walk for miles just to get to a place that still had heat.
That's why Nesahkluah, 34, a Kiowa-Apache, is passionate about pursuing her undergraduate education at The University of Iowa after pulling herself out of a life of poverty and physical, mental, sexual, and substance abuse.
She's equally passionate about using that education to advocate for American Indian human rights and stopping what she views as "modern day genocide."
"I didn't want to live in poverty anymore, and I wanted to devote my life to healing my own wounds as well as healing those of others," says Nesahkluah, who is pursuing a double major in social work and communication studies with a concentration in the UI American Indian and Native Studies Program. She also plans to get her master's degree in social work from The University of Iowa.
It's not enough that Nesahkluah is a nontraditional student and single mother. She's also created a grassroots charitable program, the Heat Native America Fund, to help provide impoverished American Indian families with woodstoves. The project also raises funds and advocates for other American Indian human rights projects. She is applying for official nonprofit status for the organization.
The idea for the fund was planted when Nesahkluah took a world religions course at Scott Community College in 2006. She realized at that time how little people know about the cultural identities of individual tribes.
This evolved into an honors independent study project, creating a weeklong American Indian educational series of events including a fundraiser.
The initial event raised $1,400 through the sales of Indian tacos. Partnering with another organization, Nesahkluah purchased 41 stoves for reservation families in South Dakota, with most of the piping and heating pads donated.
With so many pressing needs, why did Nesahkluah choose woodstoves?
"It goes back to what do you need to survive another day? A way to cook and a way to stay warm in 40-degree-below-zero weather," she says.
Nesahkluah says she choose the South Dakota reservations because that is where some of the greatest human suffering is occurring, with high rates of poverty, suicide, diabetes, cancer, alcoholism, and other social ills.
"People look at conditions in Darfur and other impoverished communities, but many do not realize that we have similar conditions right here in our heartland," Nesahkluah says. "It may not be as visible as the overt killing and bloodshed in war-torn Darfur, but the devastation, oppression, and poverty are just as severe, though perhaps more subtle."
Nesahkluah has faced her own share of hardships. She dropped out of Warrior High School after the first week of her senior year. For the next decade, Nesahkluah says she traveled with the "Grateful Dead circuit," crisscrossing the nation, living out of buses, limousines, and vans.
"I learned many of life's lessons during that time," she says.
In the late 1990s, she moved to the Quad Cities where her mother was living. Nesahkluah went back to school, obtained her GED and attended a few classes at Black Hawk College, but she still wasn't ready to buckle down and focus on academics.
The birth of her son Preston in 2004 was a major turning point in her life. That following fall, she went to Scott Community College and graduated in spring 2008 with honors. She started her first year at The University of Iowa in fall 2008.
"I knew that in this day and age, you have to have an education. I have a son to care for now, and I am determined to break the cycles of disparity," Nesahkluah says. "I want to give him the beginning that I didn't have."
Nesahkluah envisions using her education "to better advocate the voice of social service interaction between Euro-America and American Indian people."
Performing and educating are in Nesahkluah's heritage. When she was only three or four, she accompanied her father, Paul Jay Nesahkluah, a Kiowa-Apache, when he did educational programs for different groups.
Nesahkluah carries on that tradition as a cultural educator who speaks and conducts workshops with school, church, governmental, and community groups while also juggling her full-time course work, heading her nonprofit charity, and being a mom.
She's also an active member of the UI American Indian Student Association, and plans to participate in the revived UI Powwow planned for April 11 on the UI campus. She will have a booth promoting awareness of the Heat Native America Fund.
What does Nesahkluah hope to do with her degrees? "The anatomy of poverty is so complex. You have to come in with an abundance of skills to address macro level needs," she says.
Nesahkluah says whether she makes a difference in just a handful of lives or entire communities, she knows her UI education will help her achieve her dreams.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't feel overwhelmed, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't feel inspired," Nesahkluah says. "I want my actions to inspire people that one person can make a difference, but it takes a lot of work."
Story by Lois J. Gray; photo by Tim Schoon
April 6, 2009