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Tribal-affiliated medical school to graduate inaugural class

Felix ClaryICT + Tulsa World

TULSA, Okla. – Indigenous people have always had healers. They gathered herbs and other plants to treat injuries and diseases, long before Europeans landed on the shores of Turtle Island.

They continue to do so in tribal communities across the country, their prayers floating into the heavens along with the smoke from their sacred herbs.

A new partnership between an Oklahoma tribe and a land-grant university is preparing today’s healers – Indigenous doctors – to serve Native communities. The Tahlequah campus of Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine will celebrate its inaugural class of 46 students at its May 16 spring commencement.

Located in the seat of the Cherokee Nation, the school is the first tribally affiliated medical school in the U.S.

Ashton Glover (Choctaw) will graduate May 16 from the country's first tribally affiliated medical school – Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation. (Photo courtesy of Ashton Glover)

Choctaw citizen Ashton Glover will walk the stage May 16 to accept her medical degree. She said her education took her across the country, including to Alaska and to Ada, Oklahoma, where she completed her pediatric certification at the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center.

“They talked a lot about what the tribe has done to accommodate those who are practicing traditional medicine,” she said. “They allow medicine healers to come into the hospital for ceremonies, and they have a funding allowance to help support death and burial ceremonies, which is not covered by western health insurance.”

The college funded Glover’s travels so she could complete several clinical rotations at various tribal facilities. This allowed her to understand each tribe’s holistic medicines, as well as to connect to Indigenous communities.

“The school was the vision of former Chief Bill John Baker, and it was created out of a concern about the pipeline of doctors into our health system, the difficulty recruiting in rural areas, so he brought a medical school to the Cherokee Nation,” Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told ICT.

In an attempt to staff under-served rural medical facilities, the Cherokee Nation campus was created as a sister school to the main Oklahoma State University campus in Tulsa.

The country's first tribally affiliated medical school – Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation – will celebrate its inaugural class of 46 students at its May 16 spring commencement. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma State University)

The Tahlequah campus is a $40 million Cherokee-funded facility, right next to the tribe’s W.W. Hastings Medical Center and across the parking lot from the Cherokee Nation outpatient health center.

Nearly 20 percent of the college’s 46 graduating students are Native American. By comparison, the national average of Native students in a medical graduating class is 0.2-1 percent. The college’s graduates include students from 14 tribes, including from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Alaska Native, Caddo and Osage people. Fifty-two percent of the class are students from rural Oklahoma.

Glover did a research project in which she asked her fellow students about their experiences on the campus.

“The overall findings of the study were that most Native students didn’t think they could be successful until they found this school, and that most felt they reconnected with their tribal identity and culture here,” she said.

Her study also showed most students decided to go into tribal healthcare after graduation.

Dr. Tex Gaskins (left) works with students Mackenzie Moody (center) and Kirstien Lindley (right) during a meeting of the Association of Native American Medical Students at the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., on Monday, April 26, 2021 (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma State University)

The college trains its students to treat patients in a holistic manner, combining traditional healing practices with modern medicine.

It offered primary care elective rotations, which Glover chose to do in Alaska with the Benteh Nuutah Valley Primary Care Center. She worked at the Wasilla Medical Clinic for one month, staying with her cousins in Palmer, Alaska, where the Athabaskan and Ipic tribes reside.

Those tribes are hunter-gatherer nations, so Glover said it was “really important to ask about what plants they gathered, what meats they hunted, and a lot of them used mushrooms, honeys, flowers and berries. It was just really important to know how they were using it and storing it.”

Glover completed her family medicine rotation in Tahlequah, where she learned about the tribal nation’s seven sacred medicinal plants and how those could interact with various medicines they prescribed.

“You can never assume anything, not by how someone looks, not by what hospital you’re at … just making sure to have those conversations about cultural practice is important,” she said.

After graduation, Glover is planning to stay in the area for her practice. She will be going into a four-year residency program at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Community Medicine in Tulsa.

In the long term, she plans to work in obstetrics and gynecology at a tribal clinic near her home in south-central Oklahoma.

She will graduate with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree. She said the main difference between a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) is the DO’s additional coursework in manual medicine, including physical therapy practices.

The Cherokee Nation also offered a Cherokee language course, which Glover took her first year to learn from a master language speaker. One of her favorite experiences involved cultural enrichment activities.

“On our breaks, we could go do basket weaving and make corn husks dolls. One time I got to do that with my daughter,” Glover said. “A lot of Natives and rural Oklahomans marry and have kids young. So at the Cherokee Nation campus, I didn’t feel out of place being married and having a kid. It was nice to be one of many.”

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This story is co-published by the Tulsa World and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Oklahoma area.

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