Native American Studies
A Head Start
by Patia Stephens
Non-native health professionals are sometimes too inquisitive, ask the wrong questions and alienate patients with their gloves, masks and aloof demeanor, says future pharmacist Cherith Smith.
Smith, a 23-year-old member of the Lakota Sioux and Piegan Blackfeet and a sophomore in pre-pharmacy, was one of 21 participants in UMs summer 1999 Health Careers Opportunity Program.
HCOP is designed to prepare minority students for the rigorous academic challenges that lie ahead of them in a health-related field of study. The program, based at the School of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences, aims to increase the number of Indian pharmacists and physical therapists practicing in Montana.
The idea is that a health professional who shares a cultural understanding with his or her patient will be able to provide better care. Smith says cultural gaffs, like overlooking the need for comfort and reassurance, can prevent Indians from seeking medical care or returning for follow-ups.
For example, Western health care professionals are trained to give the worst-case scenarios, whereas a native healer would say, Youre going to get better, she says. We believe healing comes from inside and works its way out.
I am called the seventh generation because seven generations ago it was prophesied that the healing would begin now, she says. Weve come full circle.
HCOP is part of that circle. By combining rigorous academics with culturally relevant activities and a holistic approach to meeting students individual needs, the program has helped six years worth of students learn to succeed in the classroom and on the job, without losing the lessons of their heritage.
The curriculum focuses on Montana Indians, although students from all recognized minorities are encouraged to apply.
This years HCOP participants ranged in age from 17 to 45 and came from five states including Montana. While most participants were Indian, two were Asian, one was African-American and one was Hispanic.
To cover their expenses, students receive a stipend of $1,680 and reimbursement for round-trip travel costs. UMs HCOP program, one of more than 200 across the country, is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Students affectionately call the intensive six-week program an academic boot camp. After being split into two instructional levels, they spend from six to eight hours a day studying tough subjects such as chemistry, mathematics and physics.
The goal of the first level is to prepare high school seniors and college freshmen for classes theyll take in a pre-professional health program. Level-two students participate in a career-tailored curriculum designed for pharmacy and physical therapy students.
Academic subjects are studied within the context of weekly themes such as physical fitness and injuries, diabetes and nutrition, and alcohol and substance abuse. Where possible, the curriculum is explored from a culturally relevant standpoint.
Other activities include sweat lodge ceremonies, a horseback ethnobotany field trip, community service projects, research observation and job shadowing.
Walter Gardipee, a 19-year-old veteran of both the 1998 and 1999 HCOP sessions, says the program has provided invaluable instruction. He, too, is a sophomore in pre-pharmacy.
If youre thinking ahead for your future, its a great way to prepare yourself, Gardipee says.
A member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, Gardipee grew up in the predominately white culture of Shelby, on Montanas Hi-Line. HCOP has allowed him to learn more about his heritage and the people he hopes to serve when he gets his Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
Without HCOP, he says, Id still make it, but I wouldnt have the friends and support system that I have now. I wouldnt have gotten to know my Native American history as well as I have. And I know my grades are a letter grade or two higher, strictly because of HCOP.
Both Gardipee and Smith say HCOP creates a powerful and inspirational support network. The programs faculty and guest speakers include a number of Indians.
Were seeing actual role models Native American people who are professionals in medicine, Smith says. Its extremely rare. Theyre saying it can be done.
When Smith and Gardipee achieve their dreams of becoming practicing pharmacists, Montanas Indian people will have two new professionals who can relate to their cultural beliefs and values. The resulting trust and understanding can only lead to better health.
Trust is very important for when people go to professionals such as pharmacists
or medical doctors, Gardipee says. I think to be a pharmaceutical practitioner
in the Native American community you have to incorporate their traditional practices with
Western practices to form a bond. They have to know you care about their cultural beliefs.
The more comfortable they are around you, the better.