- The young man who would soon be honored scanned the powwow crowd
looking for his mother.
Two of Damion Killsback's three brothers
were there, along with a sister. His 5-year-old daughter, his nephew,
an aunt and an uncle were there, too. But Jackie Tang could not
be found in the sea of faces, and if she did not show up soon, Damion's
Honor Ceremony would not happen.
Finally, she emerged from the young dancers
dressed in brilliant tribal finery milling about the passageway
to and from the arena floor at the University of Montana's Adams
Gifts of honor
She brought in one last gift to place among the 15 gift baskets
the family had assembled to give in appreciation to Damion's mentors
Damion breathed deeply and shifted his
weight from one foot to the other, setting in motion the long reams
of fringe on the Northern Cheyenne Grass Dance outfit he wore.
Soon, the drumming of the Walking Horse
Singers from the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana
filled the air with a special song for Damion.
Called "Ko'sestse," or "wisest
member of the family," the 24-year-old stepped forward with
his family to begin his walk of honor. Tribal members quickly joined.
Together, they paid tribute to their first
pharmacist, three weeks before he would officially receive his doctor
of pharmacy degree at UM's 2002 commencement.
"I'm really proud of Damion," said his 22-year-old brother,
Leo, who is a senior at Montana State University. "He's not
afraid to stand alone. He's not afraid to stand out."
In Montana's Cheyenne country, which has
6,500 enrolled tribal members and a 46 percent unemployment rate,
few people graduate from college, and many live in poverty.
Damion will earn a starting salary of
$70,000 with a Billings clinical pharmacy consulting firm. In doing
so, he joins the slim fellowship of fewer than 500 American Indian
pharmacists in the United States. If he should choose someday to
become a professor, he will join the even smaller band of Indian
pharmacy professors, who now total five in the country.
His accomplishment, Damion said, is the
accomplishment of his people; and now he can help heal them.
His honor walk, he said, was possible
because of his ancestors' journey, and now he is duty-bound to guide
his tribe's children to the academic path.
"I'm glad we could survive this long
as a people and come together to celebrate," Damion said. "My
people had to run hundreds of miles from soldiers to get up here
to give their people a better life."
Damion gives much of the credit for his
accomplishment to his mother.
Raised on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation,
Damion's mother was forced into a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding
Despite all the change in her young life,
Jackie became a dedicated student, a dorm mother and sister to the
younger children. She became steeped in Cheyenne tradition during
school vacations, learning at the sides of her grandmother and aunts.
Both influences taught her that she would
never leave her children's care or education in the hands of someone
"I watched those young kids who were
left at school and decided that when I had children, I was going
to be with my kids - no matter what," Jackie said.
She married, had six kids, got divorced
and took over as the family's sole caregiver in the small wind-swept
town of Busby.
"I kept a pretty tight hold on them,"
Jackie said of her kids. "When I divorced their dad, I told
them 'If you live with me, you have to help because it's going to
be hard, and we all have to help out.' "
Knowing that education was the path to
a better life, Jackie chose to enroll her children in Colstrip,
about 40 miles away, because she believed it offered better teachers
and more learning opportunities.
It was a long trip. Damion and his twin
brother, Dion, and younger brothers Lawrence and Leo, had to rise
at 6 a.m. to catch the bus at 7 a.m. to get to school by 8 a.m.
Back home, Jackie kept her children motivated
by teaching them the hard realities of life on the reservation.
"I showed them what alcohol does
to them," she said. "I showed them their relatives who
are messed up in the head. ... I showed them the real stuff and
asked them if they wanted to end up like that."
"Mom instilled in us that education
was the most important thing, so studying through junior high and
high school - we didn't make a big deal about it," said Dion,
who is in his second year of law school at UM.
When classes like organic chemistry seemed
beyond comprehension, and when he felt isolated in Missoula, Damion
said he called his mother for advice.
She was never upset with his thoughts
about quitting, asking only: "What will you do if you are not
"I never had an answer for her,"
Damion said. "So I stayed."
He completed his pre-pharmacy classes
and he applied for formal acceptance into the clinical pharmacy
program - as all students are required to do.
Going in, he knew the journey would be
difficult. He knew he was committing to a six-year competitive program.
Class hours were long, lab hours were long, and homework assignments
were even longer.
"I just believed in my abilities,"
Damion said. "I knew it would be a lot of hard work, and I
knew I wasn't the smartest guy in my class. But I knew if I worked
hard I would get through it"
In the dark hours of uncertainty and mental
exhaustion, Damion said, he drew strength from his people.
"They told me I could do it,"
he said. "And my mom taught me how to work hard."
UM pharmacy professor Rustem Medora said
the program, which ends in a doctor of pharmacy, is a rigorous science
curriculum that by nature culls the weakest students.
In Medora's 35 years teaching at UM, 23
Indians have graduated from UM's pharmacy program, which has in
the last decade evolved into a clinical program and graduates about
50 students each year.
About a dozen of the 23 Indian pharmacy
graduates, like Damion, are students who participated in a federal
grant-funded program called Health Careers Opportunity Program.
It identifies talented minority science students in high school
and helps prepare them for college-level courses through intensive
academic immersion programs on weekends and during the summer.
"But Damion stuck with it and did
a good job," he said. "I'm sure he had a lot of bumps
along the way, but he stayed focused and finished what he set out
to do. We are all very proud of him."
Damion said he is ready to make his way
as a professional on the healing path.
"I like being regarded as someone
with knowledge, someone that is looked to for medical advice,"
he said. "Especially back home. How many people my age could
sit down and assess if a diabetic's medication isn't working?
"It's a huge responsibility."