Don’t tell George Blue Spruce Jr. he can’t do something he sets his mind to – he’s already spent a lifetime proving otherwise.
Retired, but extremely busy as he approaches the time in life when people can call him an octogenarian, Blue Spruce has already been called by many titles. His DDS, MPH credentials qualify him to list “Dr.” on his letterhead, a career choice that made him the nation’s first American Indian dentist, and a path that resulted in his being named Assistant U.S. Surgeon General.
Although he officially “retired” 25 years ago, “He continues to work hard to enhance the health of American Indian peoples and to encourage Indian people to become dentists as well as leaders in other health professions,” according to the American Indians in Health Careers web page.
“For nearly two decades, I was the only identified Indian dentist until numbers started picking up when federal programs began to open up dental schools to increase the numbers of Indian and other minority dentists,” said Blue Spruce, who currently functions as an assistant dean at the A.T. Still University/Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health in Mesa.
There’s still a long way to go in that effort however. With 150 American Indian dentists in the country, “That means roughly one for every 32,000 American Indians while the rate among the rest of the population is about one to every 1,200 people,” said Carol Grant, the college’s director of American Indian Health Professions.
Not only are the numbers of Indian dentists disproportionate to the population, so is the need for their services. The American Indian/Alaska Native population has the highest tooth decay rate of any population cohort in the U.S. – five times the average for children 2 – 4 years old; 68 percent of these children have untreated dental problems and one-third of them miss school due to dental pain.
Insufficient funding for health care, isolation of tribal populations, and difficulty in attracting and keeping dentists in the IHS and rural tribal health facilities are all factors that contribute to the disparities in oral health that exists today.
Blue Spruce, who founded the Society of American Indian Dentists and wrote the original draft of federal statutes for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, continues to travel the country telling young Native American men and women that the medical professions need them. “I was the first Indian with a dental degree. I recruited a young man who became the second one. And I haven’t stopped recruiting since.”
Attesting to his ongoing quest, Grant said: “He goes everywhere and his message to Native American youth is, ‘you are needed; you can do this.’”
“For years I encouraged Indian youth to graduate from high school. Then I began encouraging them to go into various disciplines in the health care arena. Lately I’ve concentrated on trying to increase the numbers of Indian people who are doctors because it’s at the doctorate level that you have that golden key to doors,” he said.
Trying to assist as a locksmith in that effort, Blue Spruce, an enrolled member of the Pueblo Tribe (Laguna/Ohkay-Owingeh), recently announced the creation of a scholarship to be awarded to a tribally-enrolled second-year AI/AN student to study dentistry and oral health. The scholarship varies in amount and is funded from proceeds of Blue Spruce’s newly-released biography, “Searching for my Destiny” (University of Nebraska Press).
Throughout his long career, he has been recognized in numerous ways for his persistence and dedication. Latest of the accolades came in September when Oral Health America bestowed an Outstanding Volunteer Award on him, “for your spirit and dedicated volunteer leadership in improving the oral health of the American Indian people and inspiring American Indians to become leaders in the dental and allied health professions. Your leadership and what you have accomplished signifies how one individual can make a lasting difference.”
In announcing why Blue Spruce was the award recipient, it was acknowledged that he was, “an individual who made possible what seemed to be impossible.”
True to Blue Spruce’s decades-long mission of recruiting the next generation to advance the cause, the 2010 commencement speaker at his university echoed his lifetime philosophy. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Public Health Department director in Los Angeles, told graduates they needed to be not only great clinicians, but also ambassadors for their career field. “Bring people into your profession, stand tall, and remember that you are the safeguards of the next generation and the generation after that.”
And Blue Spruce has the final word on the subject printed on the back of his business card: “Until American Indian youngsters are give the opportunity to assume meaningful leadership roles – Indian self-determination remains a myth!”