‘My grandmother was my drive’ navajo returns to her roots to serve her people – and achieves a first in the process sponsored by creighton university omaha.com o gosh


“It’s very rural,” said Sekaquaptewa, the first Native American woman dentist in the Utah Navajo Health System. “Even when they get to Monument Valley, all we have is the clinic, a grocery store, a gas station, two hotels — and all that is pretty spread out.

“A lot of dental words don’t directly translate very easily,” she said. “We haven’t quite figured out the best way to say ‘gums.’ But I learn a little more every day, learn a little more from different dialects. For a patient to walk in and see that I can speak their language and for them to say, ‘Oh, you’re Navajo!’ puts a lot of patients at ease. It goes a long way toward trust.”

“And I remember my grandmother, she didn’t understand why someone would want to be a dentist,” Sekaquaptewa recalled. “My grandmother spoke no English, only Navajo. She’d never been to a doctor of any kind who looked like she looked, spoke how she spoke.

“I remember thinking how cool it would be if my grandmother had a Navajo doctor, someone who understood her language and her culture,” she said. “I had never seen a Navajo dentist. I started thinking that I wanted to be that dentist. And that became my goal. My grandmother was my drive.”

Following completion of her bachelor’s degree at Southern Utah University, where she was part of that institution’s Rural Health Scholars program and volunteered with dental clinics serving the Paiute Tribe of Utah, Sekaquaptewa enrolled at the Creighton School of Dentistry.

“If people are going to drive two, three, four hours to come to you, you have to be ready to help in any situation,” Sekaquaptewa said. “Sending them to a specialist is more time traveling and we’re not just in the business of pulling teeth.

“It was very clear to all of us that she wanted to be a dentist, and she had very compelling reasons for wanting to be a dentist,” Gould said. “Her personality is geared toward a spirit of service. She wanted to do her very best to learn all she could and to work as hard as she could because she knew where she wanted to take her skills and leadership.”

Upon graduation from dental school, Sekaquaptewa returned to Utah and took up another lifelong passion, competitive Native American dancing. She was leading a summer instructional session in the art for some youth when a father of one of the dancers said he was looking for a dentist at the Utah Navajo Health System clinic in Monument Valley.

With no hesitation, both Sekaquaptewa and her husband, Kevin, a teacher and a member of the Hopi Tribe, packed up and made their way to the little town on the Utah-Arizona border, where a pair of sandstone buttes resembling mittens and shooting several hundred feet above the desert floor are the definition of a high-rise.

“It’s not for everyone, living out here,” Sekaquaptewa said. “My husband says I’m one of those rare people who knows what they want to do from the time they’re very young and then sees it all the way through. I feel lucky that way. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”