“My grandmother—who was my first mentor, and I idolize her to this day—was a shaman,” says Donna Polk, a licensed mental health practitioner who has a Ph.D. in administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I grew up with her laying hands on people and with people coming to her house for her to pray for them.”
Inspired by her grandmother’s work and fascinated by her Native heritage (Comanche), the young Polk set out to establish a healing legacy of her own, one that continues to this day.
From her counseling work at the Lincoln Indian Center, to her time on the Lincoln-Lancaster County Board of Health, to her directorship at No More Empty Pots, Polk has dedicated her life to serving disenfranchised communities, advocating for marginalized peoples, and fighting for more effective and accessible health care. Her work has earned her numerous accolades, including a lifetime achievement award from Voices for Children in Nebraska.
For the past 26 years, she’s continued her important work as chief executive officer of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition, where she has spearheaded an initiative to expand services and relocate the NUIHC to a new facility at the former location of the South Omaha Eagles Club.
If all goes according to plan, construction and renovation at the new site will be underway in 2019. The relocation would involve a land swap with Arch Icon Development, which has purchased the South Omaha property and four surrounding lots. Arch Icon already owns the Flats on Howard that surround the health coalition’s current location. But the land swap is not yet a sure deal.
“It all hinges on our ability to raise $7 million to cover the new building’s renovation costs,” Polk says.
Polk—or “Dr. Donna,” as she is known around the office—was born to a military family in Denver, Colorado. She spent her childhood moving from state to state, following her submariner father from assignment to assignment. “I’m from a lot of places that prepared me for living in Omaha,” she says.
In 1964, Polk’s husband was stationed at the Nike Hercules missile site near Louisville, Nebraska. “Colored” people were not allowed to live in Louisville, so the Red Cross set up the family with a home in North Omaha. “We had lived in Maryland, so I was used to segregation,” she explains. “But I loved living in North Omaha. Like South Omaha is today, we had everything we needed.”
“That’s what I’m trying to develop in our project,” Polk says, referring to the coalition’s new initiative. “A little community for the descendants of the original settlers of this land.” Her organization serves members of the five tribes of Nebraska (and other federally recognized tribes) living in the Omaha and Lincoln metro areas. Many NUIHC services are available to the public, regardless of Native ancestry.
The NUIHC is a nonprofit organization that provides “community health care and services targeting the urban American Indian and Alaska Native population.” Services include transitional living, substance abuse treatment, sexually transmitted disease testing, funeral services, diabetes education, and youth and elder community programs, among others. Aside from its Omaha headquarters, the organization manages the Nebraska Urban Indian Medical Center in Lincoln.
Executive directors of regional Indian centers in Lincoln, Omaha, and Sioux City, Iowa, established the coalition in 1986. Polk says it originally formed to “focus on health issues, leaving the Indian centers to focus on socio-economic issues, employment, housing, financial supportive services, education, and things of that nature.”
“Now there is no Indian center in Sioux City and none in Omaha, so we hope our new facility will increase our capacity to do more in the realm of job placement, training, and there is even possible collaboration with Metropolitan Community College in the works,” she says.
Polk says that a “stroke of luck and genius” brought her to the health coalition in 1991. “Genius on the part of my mentor [Syd Beane, the former director of the Lincoln Indian Center], who was leaving Nebraska for a role with the Center for Community Change in San Francisco,” she explains. Polk had been with the Lincoln Indian Center since 1985. “He said, ‘Donna, you need to really think about where you’re going to go when I leave. But I have a place for you to go.’”
That place was the coalition. “When I learned about this organization, and the fact it was health-related, and it was Native—because I knew that we had Native blood in our family—I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’” Polk took the job and, before long, she had established a nonprofit clinic in Lincoln. She remembers thinking, “I’m really like Grandma now!”
Omaha resident Robert O’Brien was president of the coalition’s board when Polk was hired as its executive director, and he praises her accomplishments.“I can’t say enough good things about Donna,” O’Brien says (praise that Polk reciprocates for the former board president). “She was exactly what we needed, and you can see how far we were able to go with the clinic in Lincoln and treatment center in Omaha, and I give Donna all the credit. She is a very, very capable executive director.”
Polk emphasizes that the coalition focuses on behavioral health, youth, and families: “Our goal is to elevate the health status of urban Indian people. That encompasses everything, because you have to look at the social determinants of health—that’s housing, that’s food security, that’s a sense of well-being, being proud to be whoever it is that you are.”
In place of their existing headquarters near 24th and Howard streets, the new South Omaha location, at 23rd and N streets (tentatively named “Eagle Heights”), will include apartments and a renovated clubhouse. The expanded facility will offer additional services for the local Native and non-Native community, including housing, accommodations for elders, and additional space for cultural events.
“I want to have a recovery community,” Polk says. “A place where people who are no longer abusing alcohol and drugs can live and have their own little community.”
While they own a clinic in Lincoln, NUIHC refers patients for medical services in Omaha to the Fred Leroy Health and Wellness Clinic, which Polk says offers “Native people a place to go if they want to be served by a tribe.” The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska operates the clinic, located in the South Omaha neighborhood where NUIHC plans to relocate.
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.