Unforeseen circumstances can often reveal paths of potential, as was the case for Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Jessie James Whitney. Although his hometown of Choctaw, Oklahoma, is only a 45-minute drive from CPN headquarters, Whitney had limited personal involvement with the Nation in his youth.
In 2017, the Navarre descendant began building new connections to his Tribal roots after enrolling in the nursing program at St. Gregory’s University and accepting a part-time position with the Tribe.
While the university’s abrupt closure that fall created stress, it provided him a sense of renewed purpose. Whitney realized he could use his passion for sports to serve CPN members and develop a career in an industry close to his heart since childhood.
“Baseball, that was my first love,” Whitney said with a smile. His exposure to athletics began as a toddler when he joined a local 6 and up baseball team at only 3 years old. He proudly wore the number 1/2 to highlight his age difference.
Today, Whitney continues his stride for fitness, serving as a full-time personal trainer at FireLake Wellness Center.
Call of the diamond
Whitney’s adoration for baseball continued after graduating from Choctaw High School in 2012. He joined Oklahoma Wesleyan University’s baseball team in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and transferred to Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Oklahoma, where he played second base and obtained a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.
While in college, Whitney completed a research assignment analyzing obesity rates across Indian Country. He learned that Native American populations suffer higher rates of obesity than other ethnicities. The project inspired him to continue learning more about a variety of health disparities across Indian Country as well as ways to combat the negative statistics.
“I decided to study kinesiology thinking that I was going to go into nursing school,” Whitney said.
He completed his degree at Southwestern Christian University in 2017 before enrolling in the nursing program at St. Gregory’s University and joining CPN’s workforce.
“My job has inspired me to want to help everyone,” he said. “Working with Native Americans — whether or not they are Potawatomi — I want Native Americans to be healthy and live as long as possible.”
During his time at St. Gregory’s, Whitney completed a course taught by CPN Department of Education Director Tesia Zientek.
“In that class, I learned a lot about the Tribe,” he explained. “Now I want to work with the Tribe — whatever it is. Even if I move to another department later, I want to be around and learn more and be able to help other Tribal members.”
Although St. Gregory’s closed before he completed the degree requirements, Whitney is thankful the institution helped forge strong connections to CPN and provided the opportunity to build a career with the Nation.
“I really just kind of fell in love with my job here,” Whitney said. “It’s really fun, I have a good time, and I enjoy doing it.”
For Whitney, personal efforts to live a balanced life inspire him to help others develop healthy habits.
“I am not going to preach something that I’m not living,” Whitney said. “I will never make a client do something that I can’t do or that I haven’t done or experienced.”
Whitney teaches a group fitness class every Friday at noon and has scheduled client appointments throughout the week. However, those interested in one-on-one physical training usually complete an assessment before beginning.
“It’s kind of a formal thing,” he explained. “We’ll sit down, and I’ll take notes. We’re going to go over any type of injuries, prior joint problems. And maybe you don’t have an injury, but you have a weakness in your shoulder; we’re going to talk about that.”
The physical trainers then use the information obtained during the assessment — including current medications and medical history — to develop a comprehensive, personalized exercise plan for each client.
“Everybody starts and stops at different places,” he explained. “Some people come in and they are already fit, and some people come in that have never been in a gym. It doesn’t make one better off than the other. One just may need a little help, and that’s what we’re here for.”
While not everyone can make it into the gym, Whitney encourages integrating healthy practices into daily life and uses his efforts to motivate others.
“I want to be the guy that people can look to and say, ‘Hey, he can help me,’” he said.
During his interview with the Hownikan, he highlighted the importance of setting attainable goals to increase the likelihood of long-term success and being mindful of opportunities outside of the gym to improve total wellness.
For more information on FireLake Wellness Center’s physical training services and group classes, visit cpn.news/firelakewellnesscenter.