Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board

Collective Healing Through Traditional Practices

“Communities have been shut down for two years from traditional healing. Cultural preservation is finally in forward motion.”

— Meighen Nieto, Family Social Worker Isleta Social Services

“Communities have been shut down for two years from traditional healing. Cultural preservation is finally in forward motion,” says Meighen Nieto, Family Social Worker at Isleta Social Services. Tribal communities are finding ways to heal and rebuild through tradition and culture after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 represented a global turning point that caused many communities to reconsider their day-to-day life. The pandemic further highlighted historical and ongoing traumas for tribal communities. The Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board (AAIHB) and its 27 American Indian communities in New Mexico, southern Colorado, and west Texas were motivated to address these traumas and help their community members heal.

AAIHB received CDC funding in August 2020 and worked quickly to fund six tribal subrecipients to build their public health capacity in the COVID-19 response. The six communities conducted rapid risk assessments using the Community Readiness Model. They assessed their readiness for change and focused on increasing capacity in three priority areas: adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), intimate partner violence, and suicide prevention. Then they conducted interviews with key partners to determine which of those priority areas were of greatest concern for their individual communities and developed action plans to implement activities to address those areas throughout 2021 and 2022.


Welcoming area at Kewa Family Wellness Center

Two of the subrecipients are the Kewa Family Wellness Center, which provides behavioral health services to community members of the Santo Domingo Pueblo, and Isleta Social Services, which serves families of the Pueblo of Isleta. Staff with both programs emphasize the importance of collective healing from the COVID-19 pandemic and past

historical traumas, with particular emphasis on healing through traditional practices. With that in mind, Kewa Family Wellness Center and Isleta Social Services have created culturally relevant activities through thoughtful collaboration and conversations.

Staff at the Kewa Family Wellness Center have engaged a diverse group of tribal leaders, behavioral health staff, Elders, and community members to adapt the “Creating Safe Spaces to Heal” curriculum to the values and needs of their community. The original curriculum was specifically designed to empower a tribe to integrate their values and beliefs into programming and was created by an intertribal team including Barbara Aragon (Laguna Pueblo/Crow), Deborah Rattler (Gros Ventre), Corinne Taylor, and Gary Neumann (Salish).

Estefanita Calabaza is the Native Connections Project Coordinator at Kewa Family Wellness. It was crucial to her to include tribal leadership in the curriculum adaptation to ensure the communal voice of healing was heard and tribal values were represented in lessons and activities. The group also prioritized intentional and purposeful review to ground the curriculum in gentleness. The team at Kewa Family Wellness adapted “Creating Safe Spaces to Heal” to focus on grief and loss related to COVID-19 and suicide and to provide healing spaces for community members. The pandemic was an isolating experience for many community members. It was difficult for them to gather with loved ones to grieve the loss of family members, friends, and ways of life. Calabaza hopes the curriculum will provide an opportunity for community members to gather once again and collectively process feelings of loss and grief through activities specifically tailored to their community.

Isleta Social Services focused their efforts on raising awareness of ACEs in their community. Staff across the organization came together to promote education and information sharing about ACEs from a strengths-based perspective. Jacqueline Yalch, Director of Social Services, explains healing as “trying to bring back balance” and “reminding the community of who we are as Native people.” Parenting workshops now incorporate origin stories about Native identity and the contributions individuals bring to society. Isleta staff have seen increased interest in workshops and stronger connections with clients since implementing these healing practices. Staff have even heard feedback typically not heard at their social services programs from families saying, “I feel safe here.”


Native American Behavioral Health Conference logo

In March 2022, Kewa Family Wellness Center and Isleta Social Services showcased their work at the inaugural Native American Behavioral Health Conference hosted by AAIHB. The conference brought together over 200 tribal behavioral health providers and highlighted the theme of “Resiliency Through Shared Wellness.” Kewa Family Wellness Center facilitated a youth track at the conference, which engaged 75 youth participants in conversations around behavioral health and overall wellness. After the conference, attendees shared their appreciation for the perspectives of Native presenters and the overall focus on culture as prevention. The conference made such an impact on one youth participant that she wrote a reflection of her experience, which was published in the Navajo Times.

Communities are seeking a state of equilibrium and balance after the tumult and loss exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite the continued challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, AAIHB, Isleta Social Services, and Kewa Family Wellness Center have embraced the mantra of “progress is progress.” They are taking things one step at a time and learning to practice patience in their quest to re-learn traditional practices and heal as a community.



Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Charlene Poola and Jennifer Redhouse, Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board; Estefanita Calabaza, Kewa Family Wellness Center; and Jacqueline Yalch and Meighen Nieto, Isleta Social Services, for their contributions to this story.