a young Hopi medical student, the problem was overcoming her culture's
view of handling a dead body.
a Navajo student, it was learning to believe that he could become
a doctor when every other kid in his graduating class was going
to a trade school.
need for Native Americans in the health-care professions has never
been greater, but the obstacles standing between them and medical
degrees are often daunting, if not overwhelming.
Blue Spruce knows those obstacles firsthand and has spent a lifetime
helping others overcome them.
Spruce, the nation's first American Indian dentist, is an assistant
dean at A.T. Still University in Mesa, where he is helping tribal
members enter the world of medicine.
78, Blue Spruce has a long and distinguished resume. He founded
the Society of American Indian Dentists and was assistant U.S. surgeon
general from 1981 to 1986. He also wrote the original draft of the
Indian Health Care Improvement Act in Title 1 of federal statutes.
"retired," he is pursuing what he calls his true life's
work: traveling the nation to tell young American Indian men and
women that the medical professions need them, and perhaps more importantly,
that their people need them to be in the medical professions.
through his efforts, A.T. Still claims more American Indian dentists
in training than any other school in the country. In addition, American
Indians are being educated in osteopathic medicine and as physician's
assistants and athletic trainers.
Still's dental college opened in 2002, eight American Indians have
graduated with dental degrees, and 12 are "in the pipeline,"
according to Carol Grant, Still's director of American Indian Health
numbers tell the story of the need.
fewer than 150 American Indian dentists in the country, that means
there is roughly one for every 32,000 American Indians, Grant said.
The rate among the rest of the population is about one to every
to Frank Ayers, dean of student affairs at Creighton University's
School of Dentistry in Omaha, Neb., the need for Native American
dentists is desperate, particularly in remote reservation areas
where there are few health-care resources.
report on oral health issued in 2000 by the American Dental Association
showed that among Native American children, tooth-decay rates are
four times higher than the general population," Ayers said.
"Native American communities have very great needs for dental
and medical services and little access to those services."
said that every year, the nation's 56 dental schools "average
only about 30 Native American students enrolling in dental schools,
and that's not anywhere near enough to meet the needs of Native
said the key to delivering dental care to Native American communities
is recruiting dental students from those communities.
a student has a strong tribal affiliation when you bring them into
the profession, they are much more likely to return to the reservation
and help their people," he said.
problem of dental care on reservations is so acute that a bipartisan
bill, the Native American Full Access to Dental Care Act, was introduced
in Congress in 2007 to address the situation, but it eventually
died in committee.
what Congress couldn't get done, Blue Spruce hopes to do, even if
only one student at a time. At A.T. Still University, Grant credits
Blue Spruce with persuading hundreds of American Indians to seek
careers in the health professions.
goes everywhere, to conferences, to schools, and his message to
young people is that 'you can do this, and you are needed,' "
Grant said. "Dr. Blue Spruce is a very humble, quiet man, but
when he speaks, he does so with authority and people listen."
Spruce does exude a quiet, even humble demeanor, but he is matter-of-fact
about his own story. His parents were members of the Pueblo tribe
of New Mexico and lived near Santa Fe. He attended the Santa Fe
Indian School and got his DDS degree from Creighton University.
all begins with the family, and it was the encouragement of my mother
and father who grew up not reading, writing or speaking English,"
Blue Spruce said. "Yet they saw that for me to be successful
in the dominant society, I needed that piece of paper, that piece
of character, called a college degree."
Blue Spruce got his DDS in 1956, he began a practice, but he also
began talking to other American Indians about why they should go
was the first Indian with a dental degree, and I recruited the young
man who became the second," Blue Spruce said. "I haven't
stopped recruiting since then. Now we have about 145 American Indian
knew that for so many American Indians there is a lack of parental
support and often no support from the extended family or from the
tribe. And counselors in our Indian communities too often talk to
students about a marketable skill right out of high school and not
enough about going to college."
Begay, 30, a first year osteopathic medicine student at A.T. Still
who is from Rough Rock on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona,
says his friends didn't really think of college.
high school," Begay said, "my friends were interested
in basketball, and after high school, a job as a carpenter, a welder."
says that he was fortunate to have a family that pressed him to
better himself, but even with that support, there have been challenges
in medical school that others don't face.
are cultural things. . . . I've had to work hard to learn to be
assertive, to speak publicly, to put myself forward," he said.
'being assertive' may be hardest because being quiet and respectful
and not putting yourself forward is what we're taught as young people,"
Fredericks, 23, is getting an advanced degree as an athletic trainer
and came to A.T. Still from Kykotsmovi on the Hopi Reservation in
Arizona. She, too, has had to deal with cultural hurdles.
had to learn to live in two worlds: the one I was raised in and
the one I'm living in now. Things you might not think about come
up. When I had to deal with a cadaver, which is a huge cultural
problem for a Hopi, I needed (a person who understood) what I was
credits Blue Spruce with helping find - and keep - students like
Fredericks and Begay.
creates a sense of family when they come here, and he mentors them
and advises them. He takes them under his wing and walks them through
the whole system," Grant said.
Hubbard, executive director of the Arizona Advisory Council on Indian
Health Care, said Blue Spruce's work has not only meant nationwide
progress in improving health care for American Indians, but also
"making significant contributions to what needs to happen in
educating American Indian young people."
added that Blue Spruce "helps them understand what they will
experience when they go off the reservation and come to a large
educational institution - not just at A.T. Still - and he helps
them understand what they need to anticipate."
Nicole Gore, 39, next month will graduate and become the first member
of the Crow tribe with a degree in dentistry. She says that just
as she was mentored when she came to the university, so she has
become a mentor to others, following the example Blue Spruce has
know that Dr. Blue Spruce will not always be here, and we know that
what he has done needs to go on," Gore says. "I hope to
continue to mentor young people; I hope to emulate what Dr. Blue
Spruce has done, and many of us feel the same way."