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American Indian Nurses: Healing Grounded in Native Values

“Essence of Healing: The Journey of American Indian Nurses” tells the story of 14 tribal members who have dedicated their lives to healing and helping others through nursing.
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Essence of Healing: The Journey of American Indian Nurses tells the story of 14 northern Great Plains tribal members who have dedicated their lives to the service of others and their communities through nursing. They have come to nursing along different paths and serve in a variety of roles, they have overcome myriad challenges and today juggle a daunting array of work, family and community responsibilities, and they want to tell others that this is work worth doing and that American Indians bring unique perspectives and values to healing and health.

Misty Wilkie, Ph.D., RN, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, was a single mom in 1994 when her 5-month-old son suffered a stroke and was transported to the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis for treatment. “That event truly changed my life,” she told ICMN. “I was an 18-year-old single mom in a big city and I’d never lived off reservation before.”

“Every morning, six to eight physicians and students would gather in a circle around Zachary’s crib and they would whisper. It made me feel like I was a bad mom, there was something really wrong with Zachary that they didn’t want me to know about. I had all of these horrible feelings from their actions,” she said. “His primary nurse was my saving grace. She would come in and interpret everything. I relied on her to tell me what was going on, to reassure me that everything I was doing was good. So that’s when I decided to become a nurse. I wanted to be that advocate and that voice for patients and families who didn’t have a voice or didn’t know how to have a voice.”


Wilkie went to Hibbing Community College for her associate’s degree and then earned her BSN at Bemidji State University in 2001. Rejected by the University of North Dakota’s graduate family practice nursing program because she wanted to go on and get a Ph.D., she was invited to to join the Nursing Science Bridge program a few weeks later. She was awarded her doctorate in 2009 and is now at Bemidji State where her Nursing Workforce Diversity Grant to increase the number of American Indian nursing students at the university was funded in June for $2 million.

Kim Williams, BSN, RN, a tribal descendant whose mother is an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, lives in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and balances being a full-time mom to two little boys, with part-time teaching at the University of North Dakota where she graduated with her masters in May, and work at a non-profit women’s health clinic one day a week.

She is one of the first generation in her very large extended family to go to college and she participated in the video because she wanted to reach out to her “50 or so” younger cousins and show them “what nursing was about and that they can do it. Our moms and dads, aunts and uncles weren’t able to do it, but we can. We can make a difference, not just going to college in general, but especially in the nursing field. There’s so much that you can do and so much more that you can give back,” she said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2014 and 2024 the need for nurse practitioners with a master’s degree will grow from 126.9 million to 171.7 million, an increase of 35.2 percent in a field where the median annual salary is $93,350 ($68,450 for registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree). The growth is fueled by an aging population that will need more health care and comes just when the “baby boomer” nurses are retiring. By 2030, the nation will be short over 900,000 nurses, with the greatest deficits in the western states.

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A wide variety of available nursing positions means that prospective students can get work in the field with any degree from an associate’s to a doctorate. The courses are sometimes difficult, but, Wilkie said: “I wasn’t a 4.0 student. That’s the impressions students get of me when they find out I have a Ph.D., that school was easy for me. That wasn’t the case. But I was persistent. I had a goal and I was going to do whatever it took to achieve that goal.”

Misty Wilkie, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, at the premier of the one-hour documentary “Essence of Healing.”

Misty Wilkie, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, at the premier of the one-hour documentary “Essence of Healing.”

Careers in nursing are diverse. Madonna White Bear Azure, MS, RN, Arikara, graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1982 with a bachelor’s and earned her master’s, also from UND, in 2001. After 21 years of service as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service working for the Indian Health Service in North Dakota, she retired about a dozen years ago. She now has her own business, Otter Woman Consulting, which does contract work with IHS, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the North Dakota Department of Health and other North Dakota tribes.

Throughout the hour-long documentary, the American Indian nurses stressed that this is a career to which American Indian people bring unique values and perspectives. Jessica Ahmann, DPN, APRN, FNP-BC, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, told ICMN: “As nurses we understand that we can’t just treat one part of a person, can’t just make one part of a person well. You have to treat the entire person. You have to speak to their mental well-being, their spiritual well-being in addition to their physical well-being. I think a lot of people in the documentary spoke to that, especially as Native American men and women, that our culture, we really feel connected with everything around us and I think nursing is similar to that.” Ahmann is a full time mom with a 12-year-old and 6-year-old twins and works full-time in addition to being an adjunct faculty at the University of Mary in their doctor of nursing program.

The documentary has been acknowledged by the Canadian Diversity Film Festival, Central Florida Film Festival, DMOFF (Direct Monthly Online Film Festivals,

Festigious International Film Competition Los Angeles (Best Documentary Feature), FFOCOL (Film Festival of Columbus), Hollywood International Independent Documentary Film Festival, and The Chandler International Film Festival.

The film may be purchased through the North Dakota State University Bookstore.