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NAU offers American Indian reservation-based nursing program

Students of Native American heritage study nursing and American Indian culture

Sunday August 10, 2014
Debera Thomas, RN
Debera Thomas, RN
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One of the few nursing programs on an American Indian Nation, Phoenix-based Northern Arizona University’s American Indian Program offers people of Native American heritage an opportunity to study on the 27,000-square-mile Navajo land and care for indigenous people served by the Indian Health Service. The program is located in St. Michael’s, Ariz.

“There has always been a critical shortage of nurses on the Navajo Nation,” said Debera Thomas, RN, DNS, ANP/FNP, dean and professor of the School of Nursing at NAU. “Many residents of the Navajo Nation do not speak English. They speak their native language, Navajo. One of the goals of the Indian Health Service and the Navajo Nation has been to have healthcare providers and nurses who are Navajo and understand the culture and language.”

About 76 students have graduated from NAU’s American Indian Program, which began in 1995. The school accepts up to 10 students per year into the generic BSN program. Some years, the school does not fill the cohort, and some students bow out due to family responsibilities that compete for their time. Students living on the reservation need not leave home to attend school.

Curriculum and culture

NAU offers the same curriculum at the American Indian Program as at its Flagstaff campus. At both locations, a medicine man begins the school year with a Blessing Way ceremony, blessing books and students. In the spring and fall, a woman from the Navajo Nation conducts a Beauty Way ceremony, which helps students learn more about the culture. Every course has cultural diversity and rural health content. At least some of NAU students’ clinical rotations take place on the reservation, where some residents lack electricity and running water.

“It’s important for all of our students to have that exposure, because a good part of our patients are Native American,” Thomas said. “They have a different culture and a different way of thinking.”

Most graduates of the American Indian Program continue to practice on reservations in their
own communities.

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For more information

For more information, visit NAU.edu/CHHS/Nursing/Degrees-Programs/BSN/AI-Program/.

Read a Q&A with student Sean Begay

To read a Q&A with student Sean Begay, visit NAU-Student-QA


Debra Anscombe Wood, RN, is a freelance writer. Post a comment below or email editorWest@nurse.com.