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  • Medicine Women: The Story of the First Native American Nursing School by Jim Kristofic
  • Julie A. Fairman
Jim Kristofic. Medicine Women: The Story of the First Native American Nursing School. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019. xvi + 396 pp. Ill. $34.95 (978-0826360670).

This book tells the history of the Ganado Mission, in Ganado, Arizona. The mission, beginning in the 1870s, was supported by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, and sustained primarily by the energetic work of physician Clarence Salsbury. Although the book's title refers to the Sage Hospital nursing school, 1930–51, this is not the book's most important or predominant feature. Most of the book focuses on the conflicts and tensions between Presbyterian missionaries' attempts to convert the Navajo people to Christianity and the Navajo people's struggles to hold onto their culture.

The book consists of thirty-five short chapters. There is an extensive bibliography as well as source notes. Kristofic found archival materials in Philadelphia at the Presbyterian Historical Society and in several repositories in New Mexico and Arizona. Other sources include mission newspapers and oral histories of over ten Navajo People. Much of the source material is from the perspective of the missionaries. This is probably a function of Navajo oral tradition, the inability of most of the early missionaries to learn the language, and how archives determine what is important to collect. Curiously, only two chapters specifically discuss the training school. Some information is threaded through out the chapters, along with photographs of nursing school graduations and nursing students themselves.

Situated in a barren part of the state, where the Navajo returned after their four years of imprisonment at Ft. Sumner, New Mexico territories, the mission thrived under the leadership of Salsbury (1927–50). The mission grew to include a boarding school, power plant, dairy, hospital, and, eventually, a nursing school. Salsbury seemed to understand the need to learn about and accommodate Navajo cultural beliefs if he was going to successfully gain their conversion, as well as provide needed health care. He befriended Navajo singers (healers) and gained their respect, which helped to convince people to bring their children with tuberculosis and diphtheria—diseases brought by whites—to the hospital. Kristofic describes the mission schools as less authoritarian and abusive than those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Still, the schools were places where the children were Americanized, and not allowed to speak their native language.

We do get clues about some of the difficulties both Salsbury and his students faced. Economic issues constantly plagued operations. Children in the school were expected to work in the dairies, power plant, and kitchens. The hospital, at first seen as a place of death by the Navajo people, became filled and crowded, with a constant shortage of both nursing and medical staff. The nursing school was opened in part to provide a workforce for the hospital, similar to many other training schools. But Salsbury also wanted to counteract racist ideas, to show his donors and those on the Mission Board that these young women could successfully complete a rigorous program. But the difficulty attracting new nurses to teach and to administer the school and hospitals because of very low salaries meant extremely hard work and frequent turnover. The school closed a year after Salsbury retired. [End Page 623]

Kristofic relates the devastation meted upon the Navajo by federal government policies—from taking their land without consent to destruction of parts of their herds in barbaric fashion to support a new dam. There is always an undercurrent of a tenuousness between a benevolent overseer and the attempts by the Navajo people to hold on to their own cultural and spiritual beliefs. Kristofic is a good narrator (his prologue is an example), using very thick description of his characters and the mission itself. The nursing school does get short-shrifted, but in the telling we get a longer and richer history of the Navajo nation. This book is an addition to the Native American cultural history genre, which needs much greater attention. Kristofic joins a group of historians such as Clifford Trafzer (director of American Indian studies, University of California, Riverside) who...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3176
Print ISSN
0007-5140
Pages
pp. 623-624
Launched on MUSE
2019-12-27
Open Access
No
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