Healing is a journey, not a destination

May 30, 2022 | Kanaaz Pereira, Connect Moderator | @kanaazpereira

The complicated relationship between Mayo Clinic and the Dakota people traces its roots back to a very painful event. In 1862, 40 Dakota men — now referred to as the "Dakota 38+2" — were sentenced to death, 38 of whom were hanged on December 26 in Mankato, Minnesota, during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

After the burial, some of the bodies were exhumed without permission and given to physicians from Minnesota and beyond for study. That group included William Worrall Mayo, M.D., the father of the founders of Mayo Clinic. Dr. Mayo is said to have dissected the body of Marpiya te najin, also known as Marpiya Okinajin, for the education of other physicians and used Marpiya te najin's skeleton to teach them about human anatomy. Over time, Marpiya te najin's remains were moved and their whereabouts became unknown. However, in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, Mayo Clinic launched an extensive search that led to the discovery of a skull that was believed to be Marpiya te najin’s. Working in tandem with the Indian Affairs Council in Minnesota, Mayo Clinic submitted the skull to a team of independent forensics experts at Hamline University. In 1996, positive findings by these experts led to Mayo Clinic returning the remains to Indian Affairs Council representatives, who worked with the descendants of Marpiya te najin to properly care for the remains.

Partly because of these efforts, Mayo Clinic has become an ally in the identification and repatriation of remains brought to Mayo Clinic from outside of the organization, and in recent years, it developed a repatriation policy in consultation with a Native American repatriation expert.

As part of the reconciliation journey, a journey of healing, Mayo Clinic’s then Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Bolton traveled to Santee, Nebraska, in August 2018 to formally apologize to the family of Marpiya te najin. This visit was a culmination of discussions and efforts that had started decades prior and became more steadfast in 2017. Mayo and Dakota tribal elders discussed ways that Mayo could honor Marpiya te najin and what would be appropriate. These conversations inspired a host of meaningful activities to promote healing between Native Americans and Mayo Clinic. Some of these include:

  • Mayo Clinic recognizes tribal sovereignty and the importance of listening to Native peoples to tell us what they need. Part of this is having Native-led endeavors throughout our practice, education, and research.
  • Creating endowed Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine full-ride scholarships in memory and honor of Marpiya te najin that are awarded to Native American medical students. Because they are endowed, they will continue in perpetuity.
  • Creating endowed scholarships in the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences in honor of Mr. Amos Owen, a Medicine Man, and Mr. Ernest Wabasha, the Minnesota Dakota Hereditary Chief, that are awarded to Native American students.
  • Mayo established the Art Owen Smudging Room at St. Mary's Hospital to honor the spiritual care needs of Native patients.
  • Hiring Native American patient navigators (two for cancer patients and one for transplant patients) for our Native American patients, a patient experience ambassador who provides education regarding Native American cultures for our staff, and integrating important Native American spiritual services into the care process at Mayo Clinic hospitals, like the smudging ceremony and the sage blessing of an infant.
  • Creating an endowed Native American Pathway Program to help Native high school and college students enter health careers including careers as physicians.
  • The Mayo Clinic Center for Health Equity and Community Engagement Research hired a Native American Community Engagement Coordinator to create innovative solutions for Native American health disparities through research and community partnerships.
  • In conjunction with Mayo Clinic Press, Native authors and illustrators and the Association of American Indian Physicians, creating a series of children’s books about Native physicians. We hope to inspire more Native children to become physicians.
  • Expanding access to virtual care to connect underserved populations to Mayo Clinic expertise through the Mayo Clinic Platform.
  • Growing our long-standing partnership with Phoenix Indian Medical Center where Mayo physicians have helped care for Native patients with cancers of the blood. This partnership has grown to include rotations for Mayo physicians in training to learn to care for Native patients at several IHS sites.
  • Providing jobs for Native Americans across Mayo Clinic and developing mentoring programs for Native American students.
  • In 2020, Mayo Clinic committed $100 million over 10 years to end racism and promote health equity at Mayo and nationwide. The campaign is an overarching Mayo Clinic priority and aims to address all types of racism.

Mayo Clinic recognizes that we have a long way to go to reconcile with Native peoples and to address Native American health disparities.

Every journey has a start, but some journeys never really end and become circular in nature. So, too, is the journey of healing for Native peoples who have suffered atrocities throughout history, the healing of a relationship between Native peoples and the Mayo Clinic of today, and the healing of current and future generations through the care we provide, the research we conduct, and the education we offer for Native students.

Originally published in Indian Country Today

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