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Navajo Surgeon: Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord

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Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, M.D., Assistant Professor of Surgery and Psychiatry and Associate Dean of Students and Multicultural Affairs at Dartmouth Medical School

Dr. Arviso Alvord is a Navajo surgeon (Tsinnajinne' clan (Ponderosa Pine), and of the Ashihii' Dine' (Salt People) clan) who has combined western medicine and surgery with the Navajo traditions of her people. Entering Dartmouth College at age 16, she had come a long way from the rich culture of her ancient nation in the desert southwest to live in the northeast within a foreign community. Nevertheless, despite the cultural challenges she faced receiving an education at Dartmouth, Alvord persevered. Though she was pursuing a western education, common American values that focus on competition and accumulation of wealth did not interest her; but what did was honoring her cultural identity as a Navajo woman and making this world a better place for all people.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Alvord attended Standford Medical School and was admitted into the Surgical Residency Program there where she was trained as a surgeon. After her Residency, Alvord joined the Indian Health Service and worked at the Gallup, New Mexico Indian Medical Center, 50 miles from her hometown. Back in Gallup, Alvord was faced with the cultural chasm between western medicine and traditional Indigenous philosophies, like recognizing the reciprocal relational nature of the entire biosphere--the recognition that all forms of life are relatives with one another. 

Alvord says "I needed the patients' spirits to assist me in surgery, and their minds should be relaxed and in a state of trust before they went to the operating room. They should be prepared to let me enter the sacred chambers of their bodies."

Dr. Alvord performs clinical research in surgical outcomes in Native American populations, and is also a member of the National Institute of Health's Advisory Council for the National Institute of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.


Dr. Alvord wrote a memoir with the guidance of Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt (Bantam Books 1999) that discusses her experiences as a Native physician working in a Native community. The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing shows that western medicine can be integrated into traditional spiritual practices that honor the human spirit and the medicine plants. She proves that they are not mutually exclusive.

What Dr. Alvord's life demonstrates is how contemporary Native American women maintain their specific cultural traditions while incorporating the cultural practices of the EuroAmericans who colonized their land. This is commonly thought of as "assimilation", but this is not a correct assessment. Since the arrival of the European immigrants, most traditional Elders encouraged younger Native Americans to take and use the best of what the settlers' culture has to offer while maintaining their original Native cultural identity--exactly what Dr. Alvord has accomplished!

In a spring 2000 interview for the journal Winds of Change, Dr. Alvord discussed medical school admission practices and criticized the admission to medical school of "competitive, even cut-throat students. If we want our future physicians to be empathic and altruistic, this approach is upside down. Native cultures select healers who have demonstrated an ability to think and live like a healer. Even the grounds on which the hospitals and clinics are built should honor the relationship that we have to the earth and to animals."

Dr. Alvord is clearly a visionary physician who has beautifully combined contemporary medical practices at the highest level of our system with the unflinching traditional wisdom of a Native American woman.


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Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


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