"When I was born, my grandparents gave me the Navajo name of Nataalbaa', which means guide, planner, person that can give you directions," Whitehair said Thursday. "I am living up to my name."
Whitehair, Navajo and originally from Window Rock, returned to the Navajo Nation's capital to begin her new position Nov. 19. The position has been vacant for two to three years, Whitehair said.
"Her wealth of experience will help enhance our services," said John Billison, Navajo Nation Department of Public Safety Director.
Whitehair formerly was the program manager for the Partnership for Tribal Governance at the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C.
Her responsibilities included helping organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency understand cultural sensitivities when dealing with emergencies on tribal lands. Last year, her efforts earned her a spot in the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Hall of Fame.
"We had to educate a lot of people coming in. They didn't know anything about tribes," Whitehair said.
Her new career will entail overseeing preparation, prevention and management of emergencies on the reservation. Her entire career has led up to this point, she said.
Whitehair volunteered as a fire fighter at the Window Rock Fire Department before receiving her bachelor's degree from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in Emergency Medical Services. She later attended the University of Arizona College of Medicine, which she left to raise her children. She hopes to continue pursuing her medical degree in the near future.
For now, she would like to focus on bringing the tribe's Emergency Management department up to par with state and federal standards since the department has fallen to the wayside in recent years.
"She brings national expertise to our Department of Emergency Management," Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said. "Her professional experience will also help improve emergency management from the chapter level upward."
Opening an emergency-operations center is one of the top priorities for Whitehair. She also is assessing the department's communication system to determine if it's adequate.
"It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it," Whitehair said. "My whole guide is being a guide to the people."
She also hopes to implement a network of planning teams, ones that will work with federal and state teams, but also will reach out to tribal communities, namely the chapters. Aside from Window Rock, there are only two other emergency-management centers on the Navajo Nation, one in Crownpoint and one in Shiprock.
"When we think of community, we can't leave out the Western Agency," Whitehair said, referring to westermost region of the vast reservation.
Another aspiration is to have members of the department, and members of the communities, educate the local youth about emergency response — not only to ensure that they know how to act in case of an emergency, but also to ensure that youth know that emergency management is a possible career.
Making over the department will be difficult given that it only employs 10, including Whitehair. She said she could not release the budget for the department, though she said it has some "issues."
Additionally, the lack of infrastructure on the reservation proves an everlasting challenge when trying to build communication and outreach systems that might help prevent or alleviate disaster.
"We have a lot of work to do, but I think we can get it done," Whitehair said.
For more information, or to get hold of Whitehair, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 928-871-6892.