Commemorating Native culture through medical school- My journey as an Indigenous medical student

30 Nov 2022

By Olivia Spaulding

What is Native American Heritage Month?

Every year the month of November is dedicated to celebrating Indigenous Peoples across the United States. It is a celebration of heritage, culture, and resilience amongst the first people of this nation. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian and co-founder of the Society of American Indians in 1911, organized American Indian Day beginning in 1915.  In 1976, it expanded to a week-long celebration. It was declared a national month-long celebration in November of 1990 under the George H.W. Bush administration. More recently, Columbus Day, which is recognized on the second Monday of October, has been reclaimed in cities across the United States as Indigenous People’s Day. You can find more information on the National Native American Heritage Month website.

My Journey

My name is Olivia Spaulding, and I am a second year medical student at Howard University College of Medicine. Being the only Indigenous medical student at my school can be daunting, especially in medical settings. In some instances, I question my own identity when asked questions about the indigenous community, wondering whether I am Native enough, or qualified enough, to answer these questions. Are my answers representative enough of all of Native America? I feel conflicted between assimilating into modern Western culture and maintaining who I am within my own heritage, leading to feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. Native Americans represented less than 1%  of the medical field as physicians in 2018.  Of this percentage, even less are women pursuing surgical fields. Although this number is small, I find the strength to continue the pursuit of medicine in my indigenous identity and fellow indigenous brothers and sisters.

Growing up in a rural Indigenous community, harvesting the land was a way of life for many families, including my own. Many summers between the school year were spent in the garden harvesting everything from corn to peas to watermelon and much more. I like to think the practice of harvesting kept me connected to my ancestors that first harvested this land. Despite this connection, I longed for more in life. I longed for a future that allowed me to remain connected to my ancestors and improve the lives of those around me in my community. I thought of careers that might help me to achieve this future, and I came across an application for hospital volunteers.

I began volunteering at the local hospital the summer before I started high school. My experience there heavily influenced my decision to pursue medicine and surgery in particular. Most of my time was spent on one of the surgical recovery floors, ensuring the patients were comfortable postoperatively with warm blankets and ice chips, as well as preparing rooms – generally, just assisting in whatever way I could. In medical school, I was allowed the honor of using surgical instruments, such as scalpels and forceps on human cadavers in the Anatomy lab and threw my first suture on a pig’s foot. I’ll never forget being amazed at how small the kidneys were in my hands or how big the liver was. These experiences were my first tangible encounters with surgery and human anatomy.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to observe several operations over the course of my academic career. Suiting up to go into the OR, I feel like a real life superhero. Seeing what I was learning in the classroom in real time was an adrenaline rush. Standing in the OR, watching surgeons pivot and rise to the occasion when dealing with expected and unexpected circumstances was exhilarating. I have also had the opportunity to volunteer alongside surgical oncologists at monthly breast cancer screenings, where I performed breast exams and escorted patients to radiology for diagnostic imaging. I will never forget these experiences – experiences that taught me more than any textbook or lecture could teach.

Finding community in organizations such as the Association of Native American Medical Students (ANAMS) and Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) have provided a space less daunting and less alone. These organizations have connected me with many peers both at my home institution and across the nation. Student members of ANAMS are currently in the process of creating a surgical society for Native students.



Olivia Spaulding is a second-year medical student at Howard University College of Medicine and aspiring general surgeon. Olivia completed her Bachelor’s in Biology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Master’s in Medical Nutrition at Arizona State University. She is a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina. She is passionate about sharing her journey with others in hopes to inspire and diversify the medical field.


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