Conveniently nestled between 22 federally recognized American Indian tribes, A.T. Still University’s (ATSU) Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health (ASDOH), in Mesa, has graduated 22 American Indians, and all but one have returned to work on reservations.
Nine American Indian students are currently enrolled in ASDOH’s dentistry program, more than at any other dental school in the country.
Perhaps more critical than ASDOH’s geographic location is the man behind American Indian recruiting efforts at the school: Dr. George Blue Spruce, DDS, assistant dean for American Indian affairs at ASDOH — better known as the first recognized American Indian dentist in the U.S. As a member of the Laguna/Ohkay-Owingeh Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, he is a tireless advocate for recruiting American Indians to dentistry, a group vastly underrepresented in the profession.
The American Dental Education Association’s 2010 “Survey of U.S. Dental School Applicants and Enrollees” found that out of 12,001 applicants to dental schools that year, only 38 were American Indian or Alaska Native. The number of first-year American Indian enrollees in 2010 was 12 out of 4,947 students.
“Right now, we have about 250 American Indian dentists who come from federally recognized tribes, but we need more than 3,000 before we can reach parity with the non-Indian dentist-to-patient ratio,” Dr. Blue Spruce says. “We still have a long way to go.”
More American Indian dentists could mean better oral health outcomes for those living on reservations. A 2014 study by the Colorado School of Public Health found that American Indians have oral diseases at a rate three times higher than that of the rest of the population. The study’s authors cite access to care as the biggest factor contributing to this health disparity.
Dr. Blue Spruce graduated from Creighton University School of Dentistry in 1956 at a time when few American Indians attended college and has spent most of his career single-handedly working to increase the number of American Indian dentists in the U.S. He credits his parents and a non-Indian dentist who served as his role model for encouraging him to continue his education and become a dentist.
“In the arena of recruiting vigorously, I was the ‘lone soldier,’” he says.
For 59 years, Dr. Blue Spruce has been visiting American Indian reservations to stress the need for “homegrown” dentists — those who return to the reservation to serve their own communities. Often, he was the only American Indian dentist anyone had encountered. Then in 1990, he helped found the Society of American Indian Dentists (SAID), and its members joined him in his recruiting efforts.
“A lot of American Indian people tell me that a non-Indian dentist doesn’t have the same impact as an American Indian dentist,” he says. “For kids to see a live, real American Indian dentist, [it] breaks the barrier of mistrust and fear.”
Fear is one of the main reasons American Indians avoid oral checkups, Dr. Blue Spruce says. A traumatic history of “hired-consultant” traveling dentists, whose main job was to pull teeth, helped instill this fear.
Along with his work to improve the dentist’s image for those on reservations, Dr. Blue Spruce is an active role model and mentor for American Indian students at ASDOH. He says these students are more likely to succeed if they have a family unit away from the reservation, and ATSU has been instrumental in giving its students a home away from home.
ATSU established a National Center for American Indian Health Professions to bring together American Indian students from all the health professions administered by the university, and ASDOH established the only student chapter of SAID in the country.
Members of the chapter sponsor and attend fundraising activities to help defray the costs of their continued leadership development of Native students. Some of these activities include auctions of American Indian memorabilia, such as pottery, clothing, jewelry, and rugs. Often, student chapter members set up a booth at American Indian powwows to provide outreach and education.
On campus, the student chapter meets monthly, and Dr. Blue Spruce and other American Indian role models give guest lectures.
Dr. Blue Spruce has had a long and varied career. He spent 21 years in the Indian Health Service; worked with the World Health Organization in South America; wrote the original draft of legislation for Title I (on American Indian student scholarships) of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976; served as assistant surgeon general and director of Indian Health Service for the Phoenix area; and is the first and only male tennis player inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
And at age 84, Dr. Blue Spruce shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’ll keep going as long as I’m able to get around,” he says. “And I’ll stay [at ASDOH] as long as I can reap the rewarding feelings from being around American Indian youth and the community.”●
Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.