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Tribal leaders honor Native medical school graduates

Felix Clary
ICT + Tulsa World

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Two days before their May 16 graduation, five Oklahoma tribes celebrated the 24 Native graduates of the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, the nation’s first tribally affiliated medical school.

Each tribal representative took turns calling out his or her tribe’s graduates and giving each a stole, sash or beaded stethoscope.

“In the spirit of your ancestors, you have embraced the path of healing, not just for individuals but for communities and cultures,” said Choctaw Chief Gary Batton to the Choctaw graduates.

Batton, Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby, Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., and representatives from the Seminole (former Chief Lewis Johnson) and Muscogee Nation (secretary of education Kaila Harjo) were in attendance.

One of the graduate’s professors, Kent Smith, brought a bundle of sage to the stage to share one of the sacred medicines the students learned about in his class. Smith gifted a feather with colored beads to one of the graduates Lana Duke (Chickasaw), as she was part of the Chickasaw Native Explorers Program, which Smith founded, that travels and studies ancient artifacts.

The Tahlequah campus of the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine gives students a medical education that prepares them for working at urban, rural or tribal clinics.

“Getting to learn from the different Cherokee physicians and learn in the clinic with our tribe’s citizens as patients has been very special,” said Cherokee graduate Charlee Dawnson.

Oklahoma tribal leaders stand beside Native graduates of the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, the country's first tribally affiliated medical school, at a graduation ceremony May 14, 2024, in Tahlequah, Okla. (Felix Clary, ICT + Tulsa World)

The number of tribal students who graduated May 16 is significant, as the 24 students make up 15 percent of their graduating class.

The national average of Native students per medical school graduating classes is less than 1 percent. According to Batton, 25 percent of the graduates will be practicing in rural communities of 10,000 people or less.

Former Cherokee Chief Bill John Baker created the school in response to the lack of Native doctors, and he attended the May 14 event to celebrate the fruits of his efforts.

“(Baker) shared with me something that made an incredible impression. He said that in Cherokee culture, the focus is on doing things that can make a difference for seven generations to come. … That vision, combined with OSU’s mission to serve and deliver better health outcomes in Oklahoma, has brought us together today,” said Kayse Shrum, president of the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Chota Center in Tahlequah was filled May 14 with nearly 100 guests, dressed in either traditional clothing or the university’s bright orange color. The ceremony was opened by a traditional flute playing while the graduates walked onto stage holding flags from their various tribal nations.

The Cherokee Youth Choir sang modern songs translated into the Cherokee language. Ashton Gatewood also took the stage, thanking each of her mentors before giving them each a token of appreciation.

Cherokee Youth Choir (0:52)

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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