Showcasing health careers for Native students

Disney+ star Alaqua Cox boosts turnout for 20th annual Indigenous Health and Wellness Day
May 20, 2024

For the 20th anniversary of Indigenous Health and Wellness Day, organizers knew the keynote speaker had to be someone special. They wanted to draw as many middle and high school students as possible to UW–Madison on April 26 for this long-running recruitment event, and they were looking for a person students could relate to, with a compelling story to tell.

Indigenous Health and Wellness Day logo“Someone suggested Alaqua Cox,” said Lauren Cornelius (Oneida), an academic program specialist for the Native American Center for Health Professions (NACHP) in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “She is Menominee and some people on our planning committee had connections to her. Her show, “Echo,” had just premiered on Disney+. We reached out to her agent, and she loved the idea.”

Recruitment of Indigenous students to the health professions is a top goal for NACHP. In the United States, only a tiny fraction of medical professionals identify as American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), far below the percentage of AI/AN adults in the total population. Thanks in large part to NACHP’s recruitment efforts and the center’s strong support for Native health professions students once they enroll, the UW School of Medicine and Public Health ranks among the top 10 medical schools for graduating AI/AN students, according to a 2018 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“We start working with students as young as middle school to think about health in a different way,” said Lina Martin (Ho-Chunk/Stockbridge-Munsee), a staff member with NACHP. “We want students to know about access to resources and scholarships, but with Indigenous students there are so many other factors at play. We see a circle of interconnections.”

NACHP assumed co-sponsorship of Indigenous Health and Wellness Day in 2016, joining Madison College, the UW–Madison School of Nursing, and the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council (GLITC). The event is always planned to coincide with an annual spring powwow hosted by Madison College.

Students talk in front of a banner featuring NACHP's logo
Nyelli Williams (Oneida), a high school sophomore from Appleton, talked with NACHP's assistant director Melissa Metoxen (Oneida).

This year’s event drew 77 middle and high school students and 13 chaperones from 12 communities around the state, including Ashland, Green Bay, Oneida, Shawano and Appleton. Tribal nations represented included Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, Menominee and Potawatomi. The day began with drumming and singing from Twin Tails Singers, followed by introductory remarks from Danielle Yancey (Menominee), director of NACHP.

“We support you in your journey as healers,” Yancey told students, as she explained NACHP’s mission.

To offer a warm welcome to Alaqua Cox, who is deaf and an amputee, students got a mini-lesson in how to use American sign language for ‘thank you,’ ‘hello’ and ‘applause’.  Hundreds of fingers wiggled in the air as Cox made her way to the podium, where she spoke about landing her breakthrough role as Maya Lopez/Echo within the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the Disney+ series “Hawkeye” and her star turn in the spin-off series “Echo.”

Cox recalled that growing up, she did not see people who looked like her, or were deaf, onscreen.

“I am grateful to be breaking barriers,” she said through her interpreter, Kenturah Holiday.

Alaqua Cox signing, using ASL, during her keynote presentation
Alaqua Cox (Menominee) gave the keynote speech in American Sign Language.

For many students, Cox’s story was an inspiration and a big reason they signed up for IHWD.

“It feels good that people from our tribe are out there doing good,” said Achilles Pecore (Menominee), a student in seventh grade at James Madison Middle School in Appleton, Wisconsin. Arvina Martin (Stockbridge-Munsee/Ho-Chunk), a junior at Memorial High School in Madison, called Cox’s talk “beautiful.” Martin is interested in studying psychology and neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“Living in Madison, I don’t really know many other Indigenous students,” she said. “It’s great to see the community and hear about people’s journeys and what they have pushed through.”

Students split into groups for tours of the UW–Madison School of Nursing building and its simulation lab, an ultrasound demonstration, and hands-on laboratory tests.

Judith Simcox, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), and Lauren Yowelunh McLester-Davis (Oneida), NACHP’s director of Indigenous science advocacy, showed students how to conduct assays that use color-changing substances to indicate the presence of lipids, carbohydrates and proteins in bananas or bread, similar to how doctors would test for these compounds in blood plasma and other body fluids. They learned that certain plant pigments will dissolve in fat molecules.

Students test slices of bread for the presence of sugar
Students tested pieces of bread for lipids, proteins and carbohydrates.

“You know, this was Indigenous knowledge,” said Simcox, an Apsáalooke descendent. “Working with plant pigments, they knew that the way to get the dyes off their hands was to rub them with bison fat.”

In the School of Nursing’s simulation lab, Muneca Danforth (Oneida), a sophomore at Bayport High School near Oneida, Wisconsin, practiced taking the pulse of one of the lifelike models, an infant whose “responses” are powered by AI. Career-wise, Danforth is focused on caring for the smallest patients: babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. As a first-time attendee of Indigenous Health and Wellness Day, she was looking forward to hearing more about her options for college.

Menuca Danforth practices taking a pulse
Muneca Danforth (Oneida) took her own pulse before taking the pulse of an AI-powered infant medical mannequin.

“I didn’t do too well in school last year,” she said. “I’m getting better grades this year, and it’s been great to talk to people and hear about the opportunities I have with my GPA.”

More than anything, Danforth said, she wants to be successful in life and be a role model for others.

“A lot of Native kids don’t think they can do this. I want all Native American kids to realize that it’s so possible,” she said.

At the Resource Fair, students mingled with staff and practitioners from visiting organizations such as Indigenous (NDGNS) Community and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe University, as well as from health professions programs and units, including degree programs in occupational therapy, nursing and physical therapy.

Dylan Wilson (Menominee), a high school freshman at Tesla Engineering Charter School in Appleton, was intrigued by a discussion with Doubara (Dobby) Stucki, a physical therapy lecturer who showed him some tools of the trade for physical therapists, such as the balance pad used to improve stability and goniometer used to measure the angle of joints.

Dobbie Stucki talks to student Dylan Wilson
Dobby Stucki talked to Dylan Wilson (Menominee) about physical therapy as a career during the afternoon resource fair.

“She mentioned that physical therapy is really a people profession,” he said. “You are one on one with somebody, helping them learn how to take care of themselves.”

Stucki said her conversation with Wilson was part of what she enjoys about recruitment efforts.

“I love sharing the joy of what I do with young folks from different backgrounds,” she said. “The demographics of the PT profession don’t always line up with the demographics of the patients we see. People do better, and trust better, when providers understand their needs as thoroughly as is humanly possible. The more we can do to help these students envision a path in PT, and to offer UW–Madison as a place to make that happen, is a wonderful thing.”

Photos by Robert San Juan