Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 16, 2000 - Issue 25


The Scapel and the Silver Bear

Book Review

Thanks to André Cramblit, Operations Director The Northern California Indian Development Council


For many years, Lori Alvord knew that she had to tell two stories. The first story is about how a girl from a remote town in Dinétah was able to travel across cultural, class and educational borders and become a surgeon in a medical world whose doors have been closed to minority people for most of its existence. The second story is about how ancient tribal ways and philosophies can help a floundering medical system find its way back to its original mission: healing.

In "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear," Dr. Alvord and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt beautifully intertwine these two stories. The themes are so universal and timely that the book is well on its way to becoming a best-seller. Both Native and non-Native readers are finding inspiration in Alvord's journey.

Lori Arviso Alvord grew up in the small Navajo community of Crownpoint in a family without money, power, or influence. Although her parents did not have college degrees, they encouraged her and her two sisters to get an education. Lori made good grades in high school. She allowed herself to believe that she might some day hold a college degree, but her college plans were modest. And, Alvord writes, "I resisted any larger dreams, for fear they could not come true."

Lori became the first graduate of her school to become an Ivy League student when she was accepted by Dartmouth College.

Despite the relatively large number of Indian students at Dartmouth, Lori experienced culture shock: "I thought people talked too much, laughed too loud, asked too many personal questions, and had no respect for privacy. They seemed overly competitive and put a higher value on material wealth than I was used to."

At Dartmouth she began to honor and cherish her tribal membership. She realized that tribes provide connectedness, a blueprint for how to live, a feeling of inclusion in something larger. In the years that followed, she would even come to understand that tribal membership is central to mental, spiritual, and physical health. She realized that community and tribe not only reduce the alienation people feel, but in
doing so, stave off illness.

During medical school, (at Stanford) Alvord had to deal with Navajo taboos. Dissecting a cadaver during the anatomy course meant breaking the taboo against touching the dead. Examining and operating on patients required breaking the taboo against touching another person, especially a person one does not know. Asking patients sensitive and probing questions required breaking the taboo against asking personal questions.

She knew that she wanted to be a surgeon and that she wanted to help her people. This meant not only continually going up against these taboos but also facing other obstacles. At that time approximately 4% of practicing surgeons were women. Further, there were only a few Native American surgeons in the world, none of whom were women.

After facing a serious personal illness and completing her residency program, Alvord joined the Indian Health Service and worked at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, 50 miles from her hometown. She thought that she could easily fit back into Dinétah, but discovered that, because of the ways her education had changed her, returning was as difficult as leaving. "Although I was a good surgeon, I was not always a good healer," she states. "I went back to the healers of my tribe to learn what a surgical residency could not teach me. From them I heard a resounding message: Everything in life is connected. Learn to understand the bonds between
humans, spirit, and nature."

Alvord was reminded of the concept of Walking in Beauty, which means caring for yourself mind, body, and spirit, and having the right relationships with your family, community, the animal world, the environment, earth, air, and water, our planet and universe. People, she decided, want and need medicine that connects rather than isolates.

Alvord discovered among other things that patients who went through sings and ceremonies were calmer and did better in surgery. "I needed the patients' spirits to assist me in surgery, and their minds should be relaxed and in a state of trust before they went to the operating room," she says. "They should be prepared to let me enter the sacred chambers of their bodies."

In time, Alvord learned, "The scalpel is my tool, as are all the newer technologies of laparoscopy, but my Silver Bear, my Navajo beliefs and culture, are what guide me." Alvord learned that she could draw both on western and traditional medicine, not only when caring for her patients but also when caring for herself.

Complete Article at:

André Cramblit, Operations Director

The Northern California Indian Development Council (
NCIDC is a non-profit organization that meets the social, educational, and economic development needs of American Indian communities. NCIDC operates a fine art gallery featuring the Tribes of N.W. California.



Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.