SPOKANE, WASH. - Dr. Elizabeth TopSky, Chippewa-Cree from Montana's Rocky
Boy Reservation, has organized her life to enjoy it to the fullest while
also establishing lofty goals. A major goal was obtaining an M.D. degree.
She is not the first doctor from her tribe but the first who was raised on
the reservation in a traditional environment. The degree came last year and
she recently began her residency in Spokane. Along the way she reached
other goals while taking the time to experience life.
She moved to the reservation at age 8 with her divorced mother and was
raised in a traditional home by both her mother and grandmother. Cultural
values were stressed and "it was never an option of whether or not to
attend cultural ceremonies, it was just 'you will go.'" Cultural values
were also incorporated into the classroom. "I was really fortunate to have
a lot of elders come to speak to us," she added.
High school brought a move off the reservation to Havre where she learned
to assimilate into non-Native culture. She was extremely active in high
school, running cross country, playing in band, participating in speech,
debate, honor society and as a cheerleader. She said, "I got a lot of
honors. I wasn't the smartest but I was up there. I was out to prove that
Indians were good people." And all the time she was going to pow wows. "It
was how my mom kept us busy. Her attitude was to keep us as busy as
possible to keep us out of trouble."
TopSky took her time going through college. A degree was important but she
had other experiences along the way. After two years and two different
colleges, she became Miss Indian Nations, the second-young lady to receive
that title. Such an honor had been a goal and it was an important year for
her in reaching out to young people. The title involved many speaking
engagements throughout the country so she temporarily dropped out of school
and helped supplement her income by working as a community health
representative on the Rocky Boy Reservation. She also trained to work for
an ambulance company and it was during this time, while Miss Indian
Nations, she decided to become a doctor.
She returned to college, now at the University of Montana, where she
graduated with a degree in mathematics and the prerequisites for medical
school. It wasn't a continuous two years at Montana, she still had things
to experience. She took one semester off to tour with the American Indian
Dance Theater in Europe. Then she danced at the Olympics in Atlanta,
staying for the entire Olympics and dancing two shows a day. As she said,
"It's taken me a long time to get to where I am."
Medical school was through the University of Washington. Her words explain
it best: "Medicine can easily engulf you if you're doing only medicine.
Sometimes you have to give it everything you have. I also think that I have
to take time for me. So I took extra time to get through medical school and
expanded my curriculum. I took five years and that was my own personal
choice. I got married while in medical school and had a baby one week
before graduation. I also took time off before starting residency because
it was important to spend time with our baby."
The five years in medical school show her resolve and perspective. One year
was in Bozeman, two years in Seattle and the final two years were spent
throughout the region including Alaska and Manitoba. She wanted to know
more about cultures in Canada and even flew by helicopter into some remote
villages while six and seven months pregnant. As she said, "I wanted to get
the full experience."
TopSky has another goal; to return to the reservation to practice family
medicine. She first has a three-year residency which will be spent in
Spokane. She also must pay back three years of service to the Indian Health
Service for the funding they provided for medical school. Returning to the
reservation will depend on her husband's business status, but she'll
eventually return. "I can't imagine not working for Indian people," she