George Blue Spruce, DDS, MPH ’67, graduate of UC Berkeley School of Public Health’s Public Health Administration program, member of the New Mexico Laguna/Ohkay-Owingeh Pueblos, and the first Native American dentist, has won a 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation.
This award recognizes social mission excellence in health education and was presented virtually this year during the Beyond Flexner conference, co-hosted by A.T. Still University and Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. Dr. Blue Spruce says the award will enable him to practice community-based medicine on a wider scale.
Dr. Blue Spruce was born in 1931, at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital School. Blue Spruce’s parents were forced into the federal boarding schools as children in New Mexico in the early 1900s. Forced to assimilate into the dominant culture, he says his parents made it their mission to see that their son would succeed through formal education while also participating in activities that both advanced his self confidence and kept him in touch with his roots.
After meeting a mentor who took interest in his achievements and happened to be a dentist, Blue Spruce decided he was “impressed by this man and what he did” and wanted to be like him. He went on to attend Creighton University in Nebraska; when he graduated in 1956, he became the first Native American dentist in the country.
“I had many challenges being the lone Native student on a college campus, and was very shy and lonely, but I had to adjust myself to accepting the challenges that came with that, by getting the grades to apply to dental school,” he said. “I took it upon myself to overcome the challenges that were there; self-discipline helped me to succeed.”
He was also drawn to dentistry because of the attention to detail he watched his father impress as a cabinet-making teacher at the local Indian school in Santa Fe. When Blue Spruce got into dental school, his observations of his dad’s precision and accuracy while teaching and carving were the lessons he took with him.
“Dentistry was not only a profession that allowed me to be precise, it allowed me, like my father, to succeed in everything I do, especially those things that are important to me,” said Blue Spruce. “It was all of that, plus the fact that it eliminated pain, provided for a good smile, enabled people to chew efficiently—all of those things were exciting too – the whole package fit how I wanted to serve my community and be the dentist for my tribe.”
Blue Spruce’s aspirations would eventually lead him to Berkeley Public Health, after which he worked for the World Health Organization assisting communities in South America, as well writing legislation for the Indian Health Care Improvement act of 1976, which permitted reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid for services provided to American Indians and Alaska Natives in Indian Health Service (IHS) and tribal health care facilities. He also spent 21 years in the Indian Health Service.
His education at Berkeley Public Health taught him about the similarities in health inequities experienced by underserved populations in the United States and elsewhere, he says, and he’s very proud to carry on the legacy of working to eliminate them, especially in the Native American community.
“It carries a lot of weight when people—especially American Indian people—see an American Indian face and know an American Indian did all this,” he said.