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A Medical School Trajectory

UMD student Dannah Nephew
May 4, 2021

One of UMD's Commencement speakers studies Indigenous culture and modern medicine.

Dannah Nephew, one of two UMD 2021 commencement speakers, says she wants to thank two women, her grandmother and Dr. Mary Owen, director for the Center of American Indian and Minority Health. She wants to honor these “powerful women” for their inspiration and confidence in her.

“My grandmother, Barbara Jean, is an angel walking on this earth,” Nephew says. “She was born in Ponsford, on the White Earth Reservation, to an Ojibwe mother and a white father. She’s my Mom’s mom.” Nephew talks about the struggles her grandmother endured. 

“She grew up in poverty and experienced a lot of discrimination. She wasn't accepted in the Native school and she wasn't accepted in the white school; so she ended up having to live with her grandparents in Detroit Lakes where she went to a Catholic school.”

Later, her grandmother married and had nine children, including Nephew’s mother. Life wasn’t easy for the family. Her grandfather wrestled with alcohol addiction, which caused his abusive behavior and ultimately his death. Through it all, Nephew’s grandmother didn’t falter. She went to church, ran a farm, valued education, and raised her children. 

“My mom told me about sharing a single birthday cupcake between all of the kids. Other times, they dug up worms to sell and used the money to buy penny candy,” says Nephew. “My grandmother was beautiful and stayed joyful through it all. And she had stamina. I made it to where I am now because of her example." 

Dr. Mary Owen also receives a lot of Nephew’s appreciation. “I got accepted into a two-year summer cohort after my freshman year,” Nephew says. Dr. Owen supported Native American and minority students. “She mentored me through the process," says Nephew.

Mangan Golden, the research coordinator, also received praise from Nephew. "She helped us out through the qualitative research the first year and the quantitative the second, and I learned a lot.” Many medical professionals visited the program. “Native physicians, Native dentists, and Native health care workers of all kinds met the students. We learned a lot about Ojibwe culture, and that was meaningful to me because a lot of that had been lost in my family.”

School Work Takes Over

During the school year, Nephew threw herself into pre-requisites for a career in medicine: biology, cell biology, biochemistry, general chemistry, and organic chemistry. She took many electives, including anatomy, physiology, and physics. She also was a member of the UMD Women's Track and Field team, she represented the Swenson College of Science and Engineering on the UMD Student Association, and she was a member of the American Indian Sciences and Engineering Society.

On the way, in summer and during the school year, she soaked up as much Native American history and culture as possible. “It was really a time of personal growth. I learned more about my identity than ever before,” she says. “In grade school and high school, my mom told me not to tell people I was Native because she wanted to protect me. For years, I pushed that identity down.”  

UMD was a huge change. “It was strange for me to suddenly focus on bringing my identity to life and embracing it. Hearing traditional Ojibwe stories was special and transformative.”

Nephew recounts dozens of experiences and lessons from Native speakers. “We went to a pow-wow in Wisconsin as a group, and it was interesting to compare it with the pow-wows at White Earth.” At another time, an Ojibwe teacher showed her a traditional version of LaCrosse.

The history of experimentation on Native people and neglect by researchers was addressed in the program. “The terrible neglect and trauma that was forced on Indigenous communities, as well as people of color, caused widespread distrust.” Nephew can relate dozens of stories about illegal drug trials, operations, and even torture, all practiced in the name of research. 

It wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act made some changes for the American Indians. “Finally people had the freedom to practice their traditional medicine,” she said. And they built the political strength to challenge unethical medical research methods.

Coming Up? Medical School!

Nephew can hardly wait to graduate with undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and biology, and a minor in deaf studies. She'll start school at the University of Minnesota Medical School-Duluth in August, 2021. Nephew called her grandmother immediately after Dr. Owen contacted her to say she had been accepted. 

Over the past four years, Nephew has developed more than academic knowledge. She has found trustworthy mentors and she’s made friends who have joined her in the quest to connect with her family’s heritage.

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