November is Native American Heritage month, a time when we can pay special tribute to all the incredible and enduring contributions Native Americans have made and continue to make in North America. The history of this special month dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, requested the Boy Scouts of America set aside a commemorative day to observe the "First Americans." From there, the tradition grew.
Today, November represents a month where the nation can come together to reflect and learn about the great people who contribute so much to the identity and legacy of this country.
One area of high impact is the healthcare industry, where Native American contributions helped to create the vast systems of care networks we have today. So much of the care we provide patients in this country wouldn't be possible without the help and influential work of Native American doctors, scientists, and professionals. Though it would be impossible to list them all, we've compiled a list of some of the most important Native American contributors to United States' health care.
Dr. Mathuram Santosham
Dr. Mathuram Santosham (1) is a professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His work on childhood vaccines and oral rehydrate therapy has provided valuable contributions to health care in the United States, particularly for the Native American communities he helped with his work on the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. Dr. Santosham led the vaccine trials, where the Navajo and White Mountain Apache tribes aided in testing the vaccine's effectiveness. Through their joint work, Dr. Santosham was able to develop the Hib vaccine, which has since gained worldwide acceptance and saved the lives of millions.
Dr. Santosham founded and directed the Center for American Indian Health, an affiliate of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The center works in partnership with tribal communities to improve the health status, independence, and health leadership among Native populations. Their programs focus on initiatives that can aid Native Americans for their entire lifespans, from birth through old age. Dr. Santosham's contributions and teachings provide valuable help to communities and students. In 2014, he received the John Fries Prize for Improving Health for his valuable research.
Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail
Another great contributor to healthcare was Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail. Dubbed "Grandmother of American Indian Nurses," Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was one of the first Native American nurses in the United States and certainly the first among the Crow people. She was orphaned as a young child in the early 1900s and grew up on the Crow reservation. In her career, she worked heavily with the Crow people but also traveled around the United States visiting reservations as a public health consultant.
Her voice of advocacy helped countless individuals. She worked tirelessly to protect her people, fighting against efforts to perform sterilization procedures on Native American women who hadn't given informed consent. She also performed valuable work helping to reduce the language barriers that kept Native American patients from receiving proper medical care. Later, Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail served on national councils and with various U.S. departments as a representative for her people. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy awarded her the President's Award for Outstanding Nursing.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte
The first Native American woman in the United States to become a physician, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte is well known for her activism and altruism. Before her death in 1913, Dr. La Flesche Picotte opened a hospital on the Omaha Reservation, her birthplace. She promoted hygiene and encouraged her patients to avoid alcohol. As for her patients, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte helped countless people, both white and Native American. She even purchased supplies using her own money when the Bureau of Indian Affairs couldn't provide them.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte represents someone who dedicated their entire life to medicine and to helping others. She worked tirelessly to provide for her community and to the nation, and her work lives on to inspire young women and aspiring Native American doctors to stay committed to their dreams. She credited her interest in medicine to a sad and unfortunate memory from her youth when, as a child, she'd watched a woman in her community die because of a white doctor's negligence. This act inspired her efforts to expand access to healthcare on the Omaha Reservation.
Annie Dodge Wauneka
Another incredible woman from history, Annie Dodge Wauneka was the first elected female to serve on the Navajo Tribal Council. She dedicated her life to cultural integration, ultimately resulting in medical innovations that saved countless lives. Her campaigns raised awareness and aided in the fight against some of the many communicable diseases affecting her people. Her work includes movements against contaminated drinking water, alcoholism, influenza, tuberculosis, trachoma, and peyote use.
She also authored a dictionary for English-to-Navajo medical communications, a work that ultimately expanded access to disease prevention and treatment for countless Native Americans. Among her accolades are two public health honorary doctorates, the title of "legendary mother of the Navajo people" from the Navajo nation, and the highest honor award a civilian can receive: the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received in 1963. Annie Dodge Wauneka devoted her life to expanding healthcare access in her community, ultimately improving health education, sanitation, and public health conditions for Navajo Nation people and beyond.
Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson
Another member of the Navajo Nation, Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson's (2) research into genetic nicotine use in Native Americans has helped advance national efforts to reduce smoking. By developing culturally relevant tools, Dr. Patricia New Henderson has helped countless people through her work. The first American Indian woman to graduate from Yale University's School of Medicine, Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson continues to make valuable contributions to the world of healthcare for Native Americans. Her legacy at Yale lives on in the form of the Patricia Nez Award, which recognizes Yale graduates whose work promotes American Indian health.
Dr. Nez Henderson is the vice president of the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health. This nonprofit organization focuses on helping address the health challenges affecting the Northern Plains tribes. There, she uses her authority in tobacco control and prevention to help pass important policies and educate communities on smoking cessation strategies. Dr. Nez Henderson is a Diné scientist, using traditional teachings and beliefs to guide her work and strategies. By incorporating traditional teachings into her research, she has expanded care access and reached countless households within the communities she helps effectively.
Lisa Pivec (3), Cherokee Nation's Senior Director of Public Health, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who's worked for the Nation for over 25 years. In those years, she's made countless contributions to policy and helped advance health for her community. As director of public health, Pivec saw the Cherokee Nation become the first United States tribal public health department to earn five-year accreditation status, an important milestone. The accreditation comes from the Public Health Accreditation Board, a board that aims to help health departments better serve their communities.
Lisa Pivec represents over 340,000 tribal citizens who belong to the Cherokee Nation. Her commitment to advancing healthcare in her community is obvious. In 2016, she received an Area Impact Award from the National Indian Health Board. The award represents Pivec's tireless efforts in leading her public health office toward accreditation.
Under her guidance, the department has advanced important initiatives like Zika Virus preparedness planning, school community gardening efforts, community walking groups, and healthy lifestyle promotion. Through public health education and community efforts, Lisa Pivec has provided countless contributions to her community and served as an inspiration to many.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Native Americans have studied and practiced medicine and wellness for thousands of years, and their insight has greatly aided the world's understanding of healthcare and patient wellness. By honoring these contributions, we can applaud and learn about the well-deserving accomplishments of Native Americans in health care. Though we call out these incredible individuals this month in celebration of Native American Heritage, the truth is their contributions are with us continually.
We hope to honor the doctors and health care professionals who have given so much to their communities, this nation, and the world. It's through their hard work, diligent efforts, and activism that care in this country looks like it does today. In supporting the work of Native Americans who have given so much to the healthcare efforts, we can further support their legacies and carry on the valuable work they continue to do for their communities.
Expanding access, developing culturally relevant initiatives, and inspiring more Native Americans to pursue careers in medicine remain some of the top goals of medicine today. In our own programs, we strive to promote these same efforts. Through education and awareness, healthcare can continue to evolve into a field that supports all communities within this country. We thank and commend the efforts of all the great Native Americans throughout history who've given so much to their nations and the world.
1. "Mathuram Santosham," Center for American Indian Health, https://caih.jhu.edu/about/our-people/mathuram-santosham
2. "Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson," Changing the Face of Medicine, https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_147.html
3. "Our Nations Our Journeys Presents: Lisa Pivec, M.S.," Seven Directions, https://www.indigenousphi.org/onoj-speakers/lisa-pivec-m-s