Indian Country Needs More Native American Dentists
By Levi Rickert
Opinion. Teague Rutherford (Aaniih and Nakoda) will begin his third year of dental school this fall at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health. He clearly remembers the moment he decided to become a dentist. He was nine years old and receiving care from an off-reserve dentist. He liked the way the dentist treated him with compassion.
It was a stark contrast to the traumatic experiences at an Indian Health Service (IHS) clinic on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, where he grew up. He had gone to the booking clinic, but the dentist hadn’t numbed him properly. He was in so much pain that his mother pulled him out of the dental chair and brought him home.
Still in pain, his father took him back to the same doctor at the same clinic, and the result was, unsurprisingly, the same. When Rutherford said he was in pain, the dentist told him to shut up. His father took him home without proper assistance. Then his grandmother took him back to the same doctor at the booking clinic, but the result was the same.
Finally, some time later, he visited the off-reserve dentist, who treated him with compassion and understanding. It was then, Rutherford told me, that he decided he would become a dentist who would treat Native Americans with compassion and dignity.
He remembers thinking, “When I grow up, I will be a dentist and take care of my tribal community.
Rutherford told me about her experiences in an interview I conducted last week. He was among several dental students and Native American dentists who were studying to receive their license to practice dentistry.
Interviews were conducted at the Society of American Dentists (SAID) conference in Albuquerque. Portions of the interviews will be broadcast in an upcoming Indigenous News Online webinar entitled “The mouth is the gateway to good health”.
Several of the native people I interviewed said they didn’t think they were smart enough to become a dentist. However, they overcame self-doubt because they were influenced by someone in their life who guided them.
Beyond the inspiring and persuasive interviews I conducted, the SAID conference gave me a better understanding of Indian country’s needs for better dental care.
An added treat for me was when I met the most popular person present: Dr. George Blue Spruce (Laguna Pueblo), who became the first Native American dentist in 1956. Dr. Blue Spruce, who is two months from his 92nd birthday, was treated with well-deserved respect by his fellow Native American dentists and other dental professionals who attended the conference.
It took another 19 years for another Native American to become a dentist, which happened when Dr. Jessica A. Rickert became a dentist and the first female Native American dentist ever. For the record, Dr. Rickert is my sister – a fact I am more than proud to admit.
Doctors Blue Spruce and Rickert were the first pioneers of Aboriginal dentistry. Decades later, sadly, Native American dentists still find themselves in rare company.
Today, there are approximately 400 Native American dentists, which doesn’t even equate to one per tribe because there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the country.
This fall, there will be only 23 Native American dental students studying to become dentists.
And here’s the important thing to remember: the need for more Native American dentists is heightened by the fact that in any given year there is a 30% vacancy rate to fill dentist positions at IHS clinics. across Indian country.
The lack of dentists in Indian Country contributes to the poor health of Native Americans. It’s not just cavities either. Oral health contributes greatly to the primary health of individuals. Poor oral health can contribute to poor overall health, exacerbating all diseases and conditions, leading to high medical bills and negatively impacting quality of life.
The Healthy People 2020 report identified oral health as one of the top 10 health indicators, along with access to knowledge and treatment for nutrition, cancer, HIV and heart disease. Good oral health contributes to an individual’s well-being which impacts the ability to speak, smile, smell and eat.
In a investigation conducted by IHS, Native American children aged three to five have three times more cavities than their white counterparts in the same age group. Among Native Americans in the 35-49 age bracket, untreated dental care is two and a half times higher than among their white counterparts.
To stop these dismal rates, more dentists are needed in the Indian country. And not just any dentists who accept jobs at IHS to pay off student loans.
We need more Native American dentists and dental students like Teague Rutherford – Native people who want to grow up and treat the citizens of their tribal communities with compassion, respect and a smile.
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