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Dr. Jon Reyhner 

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This book review was published in the October 6, 1999 issue (Vol. 17, No. 40) of the Navajo Hopi Observer on page 9. Reprinted by permission.

Making it Academically on the Rez

Jon Reyhner
Lori Arviso Alvord, surgeon and university administrator, has to be an example of academic success for students in Navajo schools. Daughter of a "white" mother and a Navajo father (neither of whom completed college), Dr. Alvord describes her trip from the Crownpoint public schools, to Dartmouth College, to Stanford University Medical School, and finally to being the first Navajo woman surgeon in her 1999 autobiography The Scalpel and the Silver Bear (Bantam Books).

It was not an easy trip for her. She writes,

I made good grades in high school, but I had received a very marginal education. I had a few good teachers, but teachers were difficult to recruit to our schools and they often didn't stay long. Funding was inadequate. I spent many hours in classrooms where, I now see, very little was being taught. (pp. 25-26) She was encouraged to apply to Dartmouth, an "Ivy League" college in New Hampshire by a friend. However, her education at Crownpoint left her "totally unprepared for the physical and life sciences. After receiving the only D of my entire life in calculus, I retreated from the sciences altogether" (p. 30).

What saved her was her "strong reading background." She writes, "I read my way through the tiny local library and the vans that came to our community from the Books on Wheels program," encouraged by her parents "to read and dream" (p. 9). She could even get out of chores by reading.

She majored in the social science and graduated from Dartmouth in 1979. Not being able to get a job in Crownpoint, she went to Albuquerque where she was offered two jobs, one as a social worker and another paying much less as a medical research assistant at the University of New Mexico.

She took the lower paying job and became increasingly interested in medicine, taking the math and science classes she had avoided at Dartmouth at the University of New Mexico with the encouragement of her supervisor, which led her to being accepted by the prestigious medical school at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Subject matter preparation was not the only problem she faced in college. "Navajos are taught from the youngest age never to draw attention to ourselves. So Navajo children do not raise their hands in class. At a school like Dartmouth, the lack of participation was seen as a sign not of humility but lack of interest and a disengaged attitude" (p. 30). Later in medical school she was viewed as "remote and disinterested" for similar reasons (p. 46).

One should not underestimate Dr. Alvord's accomplishments. Only 4% of the practicing surgeons in the United States are women, and only a few of those women are American Indians. While she got into medical school partly because of affirmative action, this meant that she was constantly tested. She held herself to a higher standard lest "My being a surgeon would be attributed to quota filling, not the result of hard work and my own merit" (p. 50).

In her hospital residency she credits a Pueblo Indian doctor for his help in teaching her how to be a caring doctor. A large part of The Scalpel and the Silver Bear concerns how Dr. Alvord worked to combine modern medical practice with traditional Navajo healing beliefs of walking in beauty and "living in balance and harmony" (p. 100).

Besides the hard work and success chronicled in Dr. Alvord's autobiography, she also describes the pain brought to her by her dad's descent into alcoholism and final death in an alcohol-related car crash.

She describes the gruesome medical statistics of Navajo and other Indian deaths from automobile accidents, an estimated 60% of which are alcohol related. As a surgeon she met some of these accident victims on the operating table in Gallup.

To a degree she blames schools, as an arm of European-American colonialism, for what happened to her father. She describes how,

In their childhoods both my father and my grandmother had been punished for speaking Navajo in school. Navajos were told by white educators that, in order to be successful, they would have to forget their language and culture and adopt American ways. They were warned that if they taught their children to speak Navajo, the children would have a harder time learning in school, and would therefore be at a disadvantage.

A racist attitude existed. Navajo children were told that their culture and lifeways were inferior, and they were made to feel they could never be as good as white people. This pressure to assimilate, along with the physical, social, psychological, and economic destruction of the tribes following the Indian wars of the 1800s...combined to bring the Navajo people to their knees....

My father suffered terribly from these events and conditions. He had been a straight-A student and was sent away to one of the best prep schools in the state. He wanted to be like the rich white children who surround him there, but the differences were too apparent. (p. 86)

Dr. Alvord concludes that "two or three generations of our tribe had been taught to feel shame about our culture, and parents had often not taught their children traditional Navajo beliefs--the very thing that would have shown them how to live, the very thing that could keep them strong" (p. 88).

Because of these outdated attitudes she was forced to study Navajo language as an adult to better serve her patients at Gallup Indian Medical Center. After a number of years practicing surgery in Gallup, Dr. Alvord returned to Dartmouth to work in its medical school as an associate dean so that other doctors in training could learn about the spiritual as well as the physical side of the healing profession, which she learned from Navajo culture and traditional Navajo healers.

I would highly recommend this book for adults, because it has much to say about educating our children, and to students in middle schools, high schools, and universities because it has much to tell them about persisting with their education and using their culture to help give them the strength to be successful adults.

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