Everyone rose to their feet and a hush came over the crowd as Erik Brodt, MD, wrapped up his closing keynote speech to end the first day of Stanford’s Medicine X | ED on Saturday. “Turn off the microphone, please,” Brodt requested — telling the enthralled audience that he wanted to close with an American Indian song to honor all those in attendance. “This song is older than the immigrants that first came to this land,” he told us. Then, with all eyes on him, his clear soulful voice filled the room, and everyone in attendance slowed down and just listened.
At an event that’s all about improving education in the health-care community, Brodt, a physician at Oregon Health & Science University, started his speech talking about how education had negatively affected someone close to him. A member of the Dakota tribe, his great-grandmother was forcefully taken from her land to be “educated” — and within a generation, her people went from learning four native languages to only learning English. At that time for American Indians, “education was the vehicle by which you were separated from your culture — from the core of what held you together,” Brodt explained. In fact, “education was used to take what was dearest from us and to try and extract it. I don’t think it was successful, but there was definitely damage done.”
Even now, American Indians’ experience with education can create a distance between the things that are most dear to them, Brodt said. He experienced this separation most strongly as a medical resident. Suddenly “you start being rewarded for the behaviors that you were taught not to have,” like competition, individuality and interrupting — instead of being rewarded for respecting your elders, working together to achieve a goal and viewing your identity as part of a strong community. There is a huge “cultural divide between this world and that world that we’re expected to straddle. And it’s hard,” he said.
This divide comes with real-world consequences for those within the community. Brodt showed a shocking slide illustrating that fewer American Indians are entering medical school now than in 1980. “That blows my mind,” Brodt said, sighing. “You would think we would be moving on a positive trajectory with the work we are doing. [But] there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
In an effort to accelerate that work, Brodt founded the organization We Are Healers, designed to identify young American Indian students who are interested in pursuing medicine and eventually helping them navigate their path through medical school. “It’s not just about the kids,” he said. “It’s about the elders. It’s about the family members.” In other words, this project will have deep reverberations throughout the community.
Brodt held up a feather that he had been holding throughout his presentation, telling the audience that it was given to him by the first male, American Indian medical student he had ever met. “It was a big day for me.” He went on to say that the feather was given to that student by a Native American doctor he had met at Mayo Clinic. “It’s a chain,” he explained. “A lineage that’s been passed on.”