Outreach to Native American Mission

Outreach to Native American Mission

Creighton dental students drive six hours north four times a year to volunteer at the St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic. St. Francis Mission is a ministry of the Society of Jesus serving more than 20,000 Lakota people on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota. The Jesuits founded the mission in 1886, and it is the largest nonprofit, nongovernmental organization on the Rosebud Reservation. It is located in one of the poorest counties in the U.S.

In 2012, the dental clinic opened to provide much-needed care: 40 percent of children and 60 percent of adults on the Rosebud Reservation have moderate to urgent dental needs and the population has the highest dental decay rate in the nation. Volunteer dentists and dental students provide exams, X-rays, fillings, cleanings, treatments, follow-up checkups and education in preventive care.

The Rev. John Hatcher, S.J., president of St. Francis Mission, said the help the Creighton dental students provide “is a real boost to us. They stepped up right away. Being able to say that Creighton is involved has given us a lot of credibility.”

Fr. Hatcher said he has been impressed with the students. “I like their attitude. They are very eager to help and very compassionate. The people trust them.”

Third-year dental student Nikki Nelson, from Tuba City, Ariz., and the Navajo Nation, was one of those who recently spent two and a half days at St. Francis. “Our days were consumed with seeing patients and providing services ranging from simple, comprehensive exams to more complex procedures like root canals,” she said.

“I formed immediate bonds with the people with whom I spoke. Although we are from different tribes and different areas of the country, there was an understanding, a commonality. I felt like I was at home and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Nelson plans to work for the Indian Health Services after she graduates, so she was grateful for the opportunity to provide care to Native people. “I spoke to a Lakota woman while at St. Francis and the words of encouragement she shared and the pride she had in knowing that, of the eight students there, two of us were Native students was empowering. The words she shared with me I will hold onto for the rest of my career.”

The School of Dentistry and the St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic recently received a $5,000 grant from the American Dental Association (ADA) Foundation. The E. “Bud” Tarrson Dental School Student Community Leadership Award highlights significant dental student outreach to vulnerable communities. The grant will help with costs to send the students to the mission clinic.

With more than 4.5 million Native Americans in the United States but fewer than 150 Native American dentists, the School of Dentistry has long had a special interest in addressing the disparities seen in the oral health of Native Americans. The first American Indian dentist and the founder of the Society of American Indian Dentists, George Blue Spruce Jr., DDS’56, graduated from Creighton in 1956 and went on to become an assistant U.S. surgeon general. Also, through a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Creighton was part of a pipeline collaborative to recruit and retain Native American dental students.