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Joaquin Gallegos Named a Champion for Native Dental Health

Joaquin Gallegos, a Native American college student in Colorado and aspiring dentist, was named a champion of Native healthcare and dental health.

Among the 2013 Champions for Change named by the Center for Native American Youth is Joaquin Gallegos, Jicarilla Apache Nation/Pueblo of Santa Ana, a 22-year-old college student and aspiring dentist in Denver, Colorado who recently collaborated with the Center for Native Oral Health Research at the Colorado School of Public Health to secure a grant for a study to determine the dental status of designated tribes in the southwest.

As a collaborator, Gallegos played a strong role in the grant writing process and ensured the participating tribes were approached respectfully, as well as making sure the research team adhered to the cultural standards of the communities. Gallegos is passionate about Indian health policy and hopes to continue to find ways to make a difference and improve the healthcare of Native Americans. (Related story: “Aspiring Dentist Walks in Three Worlds)

How did you first get involved with your area of knowledge?

I have always known that I wanted to be in the medical field as I love science and enjoy helping others. I have interned and eventually became employed at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health-University of Colorado for the last four years. This experience has fostered my interest in oral health of Native communities and Indian Health Policy.

Establishing and maintaining partnerships with numerous tribal governments, tribal health departments, and communities has proved invaluable. I look forward to working with more Indian nations and creating change in Indian health at a broader level in addition to providing primary dental care.

What is something people may not know about your area of expertise?

There is the misconception that Native people get free health care. Our ancestors fully paid with their lives and lands as they established internationally binding treaties with the U.S. government that guaranteed the provision of healthcare for the generations after them. This federal legal obligation, implemented through the Indian Health Service (IHS), is chronically underfunded. In fact, the U.S. spends less per capita on IHS patients than Medicare, Medicaid, veteran, and prison patients.

Also, solutions to dismal health conditions of Indian people can be met with political opposition. For example, special interest groups have lobbied to have language written in Title X of the Affordable Care Act: The Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act which prohibits Indian tribes from utilizing dental health aide therapists in their healthcare systems unless the state in which that tribe “resides” legalizes these providers. This is a direct attack and encroachment on tribal sovereignty as Indian nations are not subject to state law. Ultimately, the provision of healthcare to Indian people is both a medical and political matter.

What is your secret to success?

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Having determination has allowed me to grow academically and professionally. Unlike the majority of students, Native students contend with so many issues that require resiliency. Addressing and coping with these issues can be difficult but being resolved to succeed for myself, family, and community makes it easier. Most importantly, having a supportive family and community that I can learn from and obtain guidance from has been critical.

How have your efforts helped your Native community?

The research and efforts I am involved in have very tribal-specific benefits. In a general sense, tribal leaders, health departments, and hospitals/clinics are able to make informed decisions as it concerns their oral health status and delivery system. This impacts current and future tribal policy. The data demonstrates a high unmet need in dental care for most tribes and empowers the argument that improved dental services are urgently needed in Indian country. Hopefully, this data can be used to alter federal policy by amending Title X of the Affordable Care Act: The Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. In this way it can progressively impact all 565 Indian nations.

How does being Native affect how you view the world and what you are doing?

Being able to holistically view the world and its happenings is important as we understand we are interrelated with all creation. As such, our decisions impact not merely ourselves but life around us as well. As a health professional, it means attuning my care to a patient’s traditional beliefs if those beliefs conflict with western medicine ideals.

Who has been your biggest influence?

The leaders of past as Goyaa?é (Geronimo), K'uu-ch'ish (Chochise), Chief Velarde, and Po'pay are all significant not merely because they defended and fought for the survival of their people but because they led their people from a time of freedom to a time of interaction with non-Natives. I aim to follow in their steps as a person who can bridge the past with the future. In present day, I look to my family to give me strength particularly my grandparents and parents. I also learn from those younger than me and they are a driving force for being a leader-to protect the older generations and make headway for the next generations.

If you could have your life’s dream come true, what would it be?

My dream is to be happy and become a respectable grandson, son, brother, and leader. In this manner I will be able to give back to the people and prove to be an acceptable son of Usen (The Creator). I think this goal is on its way to fruition.