Tribal Health Symposium Focuses on Wellness with Cultural Awareness



Emma Hughes

Gila River Indian News


Molina Healthcare of Arizona hosted its first Tribal Health Symposium focusing on holistic health and wellness for Native Americans at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel & Casino in Maricopa on Tuesday, Oct 24. It allowed healthcare professionals serving Tribal communities to increase cultural awareness and tribal health training through meaningful engagement and connection. 


The one-day event brought together over 100 healthcare professionals and provided information and resources on topics such as substance abuse recovery, behavioral health, physical wellness, support for children and families, traditional medicine, and veteran’s healthcare. It also covered the missing and murdered indigenous people epidemic. 


“We’ve had some really positive feedback,” said Cassandra Peña, tribal liaison for Molina Healthcare and a member of Gila River Indian Community’s District 6. “I’ve received an overwhelming response of praise and gratitude and just the event itself provided so much connection and teachings.”


The event also included GRIC members Joseph Davis, Youth Council Coordinator for the Ak-Chin Indian Community, who provided a blessing for the event, and Pam Thompson, Director of Health and Human Services for the Ak-Chin Indian Community, who helped lead a work session on providing health and healing through art, music, play, and creative connection.


 Planning for the symposium began back in February 2023, Peña said. 


“It started with a vision when I first started thinking of how we can engage with tribal partners and bringing providers and health professionals together,” she added. Peña has served as the tribal liaison for Molina Healthcare for over two years. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and credits the Community for assisting in her education by providing a scholarship through the Tribal Education Department.


“I tailored my education to support the work that I wanted to do post-grad,” Peña said. “Working in tribal health was always my mission.”.


Her background includes working with the Phoenix-area Indian Health Service office in the Integrated Behavioral Health Department. She began as a social work intern and transitioned to a full-time temporary position as an analyst assistant.


In Peña’s role with Molina Healthcare, she serves as a link between Tribal health programs, including the Indian Health Service, 638 tribally operated facilities, Urban Indian Health Programs, and non-tribal health care providers. 


She also coordinates physical and behavioral health care for Molina’s American Indian and Alaskan members and serves as an internal and external resource.


Peña began collecting data from tribal partners on whether this kind of event would be helpful and what they would like to see. 


“It just grew from there,” she said. “I had an interest; I had several topics that people wanted to see and so from that we formed a tribal health symposium planning committee, all including various tribal programs, urban Indian programs and providers.”


The planning committee began identifying topics they could focus on along with speakers and presenters.


“I facilitated and led this effort through my passion and thinking of ways to engage meaningfully with the Community,” Peña said. 


She added that she is thankful to everyone who was involved in the planning and logistics of the symposium and noted, “I’m really grateful for my organization, Molina Healthcare, for believing in that vision as well and offering support,” Peña said. Next year’s Tribal Health Symposium is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct 22, 2024, at a location to be determined.