Native American Students Drill Down Into Dental School Prep In Mesa

By  Mariana Dale
Published: Friday, February 2, 2018 - 7:51am
Updated: Friday, February 2, 2018 - 8:00am


Dominique Yellowhair practices drilling a cavity during a workshop at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health in Mesa.
(Photo by Mariana Dale- KJZZ)

Dominique Yellowhair peers down into a mouth of 32 shiny white teeth and starts to drill.

“I don’t feel as confident as I should be right now, but that will improve,” Yellowhair said smiling.

She has time to learn. Yellowhair is a freshman at Dixie State University and those teeth she’s drilling into are plastic.

Yellowhair is one of 12 students participating in a workshop at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health at A.T. Still University in Mesa - meant to prepare Native Americans to apply for dental school. 

“There’s a question of representation,” said Sarah Yankton Hill, a fourth year dental student.

The Society of American Indian Dentists found there are fewer than 300 American Indian dentists to serve a population of 5.2 million Native Americans.

Hill helped plan the workshop, which is in its third year and brought students from Alabama, Arizona, Alaska, California, Oklahoma and Minnesota free of cost.

“I want students early in the process to understand what it is to become a dentist,” Hill said.

In addition to practicing dental skills the students rehearse interviews and learn about the state of oral health in Native American communities.

The Pew Charitable Trusts found Native Americans have some of the poorest oral health in the country. For example, a 2011 survey found 97 percent of adults living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota had tooth decay.

“Our society tends to value physical health and health in the rest of the body, but not oral health as much,” Hill said.

A dozen students from states including Arizona, Alaska, California, Oklahoma and Minnesota practice in a simulation lab to prepare for dental school.
(Photo by Mariana Dale-KJZZ)

In the lab, Yellowhair drills and pauses. She motioned for one of the dental students helping out, Pearce Ollar.

“How do you feel about it? Tell me about it,” he said.

“I don’t know, I just drilled. I think I went off here and here,” Yelllowhair said gesturing with a pointy metal tool.

“That’s OK. It looks really good," Ollar said.

Ollar gives her tips on how to hold the tiny mirror and encourages her to keep drilling.

“I hope that they kind of realize or not realize their passion for dentistry,” Ollar said. “This is a lot of what dentistry is as far as understanding kind of minute things.”

Yellowhair said she grew up hanging out at the Indian Health Center in Northern Arizona where her mom worked. She vividly remembers getting to watch a tooth extraction.

“That like, it was pretty crazy” she said. “I liked it.”

When she got older, Yellowhair said a family friend, who was an orthodontist, offered to straighten her teeth for free.

“Braces, they’re everything,” she said. “Having a perfect smile is like a confidence booster.”

She hopes to go to dental school at A.T. Still in Mesa and eventually study orthodontia.

“When I become a dentist I want to maybe go back home and practice there at the Indian Health Center and give that duty back to the people of the Indian reservation,” Yellowhair said. “You have to return to your home.”

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