TUBA CITY, Ariz. - Integrating the Navajo spiritual and cultural world of her father, with her mother's non-Native world, growing up near Crownpoint, N.M., was a mixed heritage blend of understanding, tolerance and the possibility of advanced achievements for the special keynote speaker at Tuba City on May 7.
Dr. Lori Arviso-Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon who also currently serves as the Associate Dean of Students and Multicultural Affairs at Dartmouth Medical School, was in Tuba City for the grand opening of the new Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporations three-story hospital facility. Those in attendance included community members, hospital professionals, technical support staff, special political guests, family members and students.
Alvord is the co-author of "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear" along with Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt. The book explains her own experience of how she, as a young girl from a remote Navajo Reservation was able to cross cultural and educational borders to become a successful surgeon, constantly looking to blend both the traditional healing practices of Native tribes along with her surgically honed science skills of surgery and psychiatry.
Neither of Alvord's parents had college degrees. However, her parents encouraged both she and her two sisters to go onto advanced educations, supporting them by telling them it was a way for them to experience the world and also better their economic status.
A visiting recruiter Navajo student who was attending Princeton University told Alvord about Princeton and Dartmouth universities. Although Alvord made good grades in high school, she was afraid to dream of attending a big Ivy League school and hoped to at least attain a degree in elementary education so she could be a teacher like her grandmother.
Alvord says because there were relatively few Native students at Dartmouth when she went to school, she experienced quite a bit of culture shock.
"I thought people there talked too much, laughed too loud and asked too many questions," she said.
Privacy and quiet reflection was something she deeply missed about being in a competitive academic world of an Ivy League university. But Alvord succeeded in spite of her missing her Navajo family, missing favorite Native foods and especially missing the traditional healing ceremonies of her father's people.
In her current position, she is able to reach out to Native students who attend Dartmouth and who also consult with her from as far away as Stanford Medical School where she went for her medical degree.
As only of one of three Native medical student graduates in a final class of 86 students, Alvord also knew she was facing formidable odds in becoming a successful surgeon. There were only a few Native American surgeons in her career area and none so far were Native women.
Now as the Associate Dean at Dartmouth, Alvord supervises admissions and four other programs.
"If we want our future physicians to be empathetic and altruistic, we cannot select new candidates for admissions just based on prior academic performance. This approach is upside down," she said. "Native cultures have always selected their traditional healers on their ability to think, feel and live like a healer. These traditional healers are ones who are able to feel, connect with and communicate with others, so our admissions policy must reflect looking for viable candidates who exhibits these special qualities as well."
Alvord spent several days in Tuba City presenting before student and local groups on her work before returning to New Hampshire.