November marks Native American Heritage Month in the United States and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health reaffirms its commitment to advancing the health of Native Americans and increasing the representation of Native Americans in the health care workforce. 

Housed in the School of Medicine and Public Health, the Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP, pronounced nay-chip) leads efforts that ensure representation of Native Americans in all of the school’s missions.

“Native Americans remain significantly underrepresented in the health professions and the workforce shortages in Native American communities persist,” says NACHP Director Danielle Yancey, MS (Menominee and Santee Sioux). “These factors show why a center like NACHP continues to be important for supporting our people in their pursuit of becoming a future healer, and to do this in a way that reflects our culture and our ways and focuses on the health priorities that are most important to us.”

To celebrate Native American Heritage month, we share with you information on the impact of NACHP and profiles on Native students and faculty in the school.

Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP) – Building community to advance representation

NACHP’s impact is broad in scope. The center is involved in college preparedness and health career exploration with pre-college students, recruiting Native students to health professions schools and programs, and enhancing their student experience through cultural programming and support.

In addition, NACHP helps to recruit, retain, and develop Native faculty, educate the campus and broader community about health issues faced by Native communities, and grow partnerships with tribal communities in Wisconsin. While physically housed in SMPH, the center is inter-professional and has partnerships with all other health professions degree programs at UW–Madison.

Each year, the efforts of the center continue to promote success. In the 2020-21 academic year, 11 Native American students matriculated to the Doctor of Medicine program, the largest cohort to date. Eighteen Native American students total joined across all of the health professions programs. At this time, the total number of Native American students training in the health professions is the highest since the center’s inception in 2012. Successful recruitment throughout the years has sustained SMPH’s standing among the top 10 medical schools across the country for graduating Native American medical students.

The NACHP team is also involved in advancing the health of Native communities and organizations at the university, the city of Madison, and the state. In recent years, the UW–Madison campus has begun to acknowledge its placement upon ancestral land of the Ho-Chunk Nation. As part of that effort, in 2020 NACHP, in partnership with the School of Nursing, helped organize a land acknowledgement workshop for faculty and staff in SMPH, sponsored by the Our Shared Future Education Innovation grant from campus.

This year has contained many “firsts” on campus and in the state. To honor this year’s Native November (the university’s colloquial name for Native American Heritage Month), UW–Madison raised the flag of the Ho-Chunk Nation atop Bascom Hall, part of an ongoing commitment to educate the campus community about First Nations history and to recognize the land as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Across the state of Wisconsin, organizations and governments have celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday of October since it began in Wisconsin in 2019. On Indigenous Peoples Day 2021 the Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers issued an Executive Order that contained, for the first time, a formal apology for the state’s role in Indian boarding schools, a practice of forced removal and assimilation that resulted in the tragic death of Native American children across the United States and Canada due to widespread disease and physical and psychological abuse.

It is against the backdrop of this deep history that NACHP continually expands its work.

Medicine Talkers – New podcast amplifies native voices in medicine and public health

One of the center’s newest initiatives is the podcast Medicine Talkers. Lauren Cornelius (Oneida Nation), academic program specialist for NACHP, produces the podcast. The goal is to Indigenize medicine and amplify Native voices inside and outside the fields of medicine and public health.

Medicine Talkers podcast logo
Medicine Talkers, a new podcast produced by NACHP, is available on Spotify.

“Our tribal communities are spread all over the state of Wisconsin, often in rural areas,” Cornelius says. “We wanted a way to reach these communities in addition to physically visiting. The podcast allows us to share our information widely and hopefully spark interest in prospective students or community members to reach out to us.”

The first episode is out and can be streamed on Spotify. It focuses on NACHP’s services and mission and begins to introduce the center’s staff. Cornelius says the first season will feature NACHP staff and students as guests and the second will highlight valuable events, such as the annual Great Lakes Native American Medical School Applicant Workshop.

Alexandra Jordan – First generation physical therapy student plans to give back to her Native community

Alexandra Jordan of the Oneida Nation shadowed a member of every health profession she could think of on her local Native American reservation before one finally clicked. She wanted to be a physical therapist.

“I shadowed a physician, a physician assistant, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, all of them,” she says. “They all felt like a chore for me to go to. Until I found physical therapy. Finally, I was excited to get into the clinic and learn more and more.”

Alexandra Jordan portrait
Alexandra Jordan of the Oneida Nation is in her third and final year in the school’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program.

The oldest of five and a first-generation college student, Jordan grew up outside of Green Bay near the Oneida Reservation. Throughout high school and her undergraduate years at Carroll University studying biology, she shadowed health care professionals on the reservation until she found her passion for physical therapy.

Besides the practice of physical therapy itself, her experience working with Sid White, DPT, MPT, CSCS, and Connie Danforth, PTA, was unique because of all the other health care professionals she shadowed, they were the only ones who were also members of the Oneida Nation.

“I think that played a huge role in how I felt about physical therapy,” Jordan says. “I saw that connection and rapport with the tribal patients, their neighbors, they had. The dedication to their community showed through their practice. The representation of Natives in such a professional role was a huge factor drawing my attention to this field.”

Armed with her interest in physical therapy, she found her way to the Native American Center for Health Professions while exploring the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She was first connected with Melissa Metoxen, NACHP assistant director, who is also a member of the Oneida Nation.

Jordan came to Madison for the first time and Lina Martin (Ho-Chunk Nation and Stockbridge-Munsee), NACHP Advocate for Uplifting Native Traditions and Indigenous Engagement (NACHP AUNTIE), and the rest of the team showed her around campus and the SMPH and NACHP facilities. The center, along with Oneida’s higher education department, helped her navigate much of the process of being accepted into the PT program in 2019.

“Being a first-generation college student, everything is confusing because you don’t know where to start or what you’re supposed to be doing at a certain time,” she explains. “There were service hours I needed, transcripts to order, vaccination records to submit, and numerous forms to fill out. There was always something else around the corner. NACHP helped me immensely throughout this process. It’s a big part of why I chose the PT program at SMPH.”

During her second year in the program she joined a student organization called Advancing Diversity and Excellence in Physical Therapy (ADEPT). She helped lead a partnership with the UW–Madison chapter of American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) to develop more programming and outreach to local high school and middle school students. She recalls how they asked many similar questions about college and professions like physical therapy that she had.

Throughout her time in the program, NACHP has been a constant presence, she says, offering academic and personal support and cultural events like powwows and beading workshops. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, NACHP staff pivoted the beloved “family dinners” to a virtual format.

Now in her third and final year, she has an interest in travel physical therapy, where therapists travel the country on assignment to fill in for other therapists or bring services to an underserved area. She is passionate as well about working in a tribal setting.

“It would be so rewarding to be able to serve my tribe,” she says. “As a first-generation Native student, I know I have my whole family and tribal community’s support. I hope one day to be in a representative role for someone else.”

Bret Benally Thompson, MD – Storied career leads to role as a palliative care physician

His colleagues joke that like a cat’s nine lives, he has had nine careers. But to Bret Benally Thompson (White Earth Ojibwe), MD, a life that led him to medical school at age 40 happened just as it was meant to. It had been his dream all along.

Today he is an assistant professor of medicine, palliative care physician at UW Health and UnityPoint Health – Meriter, and a faculty advisor for the Native American Center for Professions (NACHP) housed in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He also serves as the principal investigator for NACHP’s Indians Into Medicine (INMED) grant.

His journey to medicine spanned the White Earth Nation and states like Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, Texas, Colorado, and Wisconsin — and careers as a rancher, deputy sheriff, army national guard member, and emergency medical technician. He finally entered medical school at the University of Minnesota, Duluth at the age of 40.

An interest in family medicine took Benally Thompson to a residency in Anchorage, Alaska. But the self-proclaimed storyteller wasn’t fulfilled by talking with patients for just a few minutes during their clinic appointment. A rotation in palliative care unlocked a new passion.

“In the family clinic setting you have these beautiful moments when the door closes and you get to share in people’s lives, but it is only a short time,” he says. “Then I discovered palliative care, which really resonated with me because the goal is to listen to a person and get to know them, their family, and the care they need.”

Now working as a palliative care physician in hospitals at UW Health and UnityPoint Health – Meriter, Benally Thompson cares for individuals with serious and complex illness. Palliative care physicians meet with patients, and often their families, to think through the best choices for treatment while considering the bigger picture.

“Palliative means ‘to cloak,’ which I actually don’t think is the best way to describe our work,” he explains. “Instead we uncover things in palliative care through close and careful communication with patients and their families. We look at not just the disease but at who they are in their community, their family, their own lives and make value-based decisions about what the best treatment is for them physically, emotionally, and spiritually as a person.”

Palliative care physicians are involved in hospice care at the end of a patient’s life, helping with support and communication between patients and their families and care teams of doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. They are also experts in what is called symptom management, such as alleviating pain, shortness of breath, or nausea.

a man looks out a window
Bret Benally Thompson (White Earth Ojibwe), MD, is an assistant professor of medicine and principal investigator for NACHP’s Indians Into Medicine (INMED) grant. Image courtesy of the We Are Healers project.

While he does not usually share his Native background with patients unless they ask, he says his heritage and beliefs keep him grounded in the face of life-threating illness and incredibly emotional and poignant conversations with patients and families.

“Spirituality is such a big part of many people’s lives so it should be a part of their health and the care I provide,” he says. “All the life experiences I’ve had, whether that’s me as a veteran, parent, son, or Native American, help me connect with people and think through these decisions that help them live a good quality life.”

While he says he does not see many Native patients in Madison and Dane County, he has previously served as a tribal physician. Similar to other underrepresented groups, Native American communities suffer from the health impacts of poverty and lack of access to care. This leads to many health disparities, such as higher rates of diabetes and some cancers.

“From the times we’ve been pushed to reservations, we lost our traditional foods, which were extremely healthy,” Benally Thompson says. “The commodities that the government gave us — flour, lard, potted meat — make the body sick if there is not access to healthy foods. Increasing this access is something we are working on right now in different communities.”

Another disparity exists in the representation of Native Americans in the health care workforce. That is why Benally Thompson assisted his former mentee Erik Brodt, MD, in founding NACHP in 2012, modeled after a program they both went through in Duluth.

The center’s INMED grant Benally Thompson helps lead funds a broad swath of programs that includes outreach across Wisconsin to youth in middle and high school and programming for undergraduate and health professional students on campus, with the goal of increasing the number of Native American health professionals.

Benally Thompson, along with his wife Antoinelle Benally Thompson (Navajo Nation), is also involved in the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), which has college and pre-college chapters across the country, including in Madison. AISES has been a big part of Benally Thompson’s academic career and personal life. He joined as a student when he went back to school in his thirties and received valuable mentorship and scholarships. Today, the couple are both part of the organization’s Council of Elders and remain passionate about the group’s missions.

While it can be rewarding when a graduate practices in a Native community, NACHP knows that a Native health care professional has a great impact regardless of where they provide care. Benally Thompson says Native health professionals are very intentional about improving community health, which benefits everyone.

“Native peoples talk about the Seventh Generation and how actions today affect seven generations in the future,” Benally Thompson says. “Each Native health professional is elevating their family and community through their socioeconomic status and identity in a way that will have an impact on generations to come.”