A New opportunity to train Indian Pharmacists

 MISSOULA, Mont. – The University of Montana (UM) Skaggs School of Pharmacy recently was awarded over$2.4 million in grant funding by the Health Resources and Service Administration. The award will help Montana’s only pharmacy school recruit and support Indigenous pharmacy students through the University’s  Native American Center of Excellence.

NACOE, a HRSA-funded grant program housed at UM, aims to grow the number of Native American health care providers statewide and increase overall health care providers in rural areas across Montana. Most native pharmacists practicing at the Indian Health Service, Tribal Health and other facilities across Montana are Skaggs School of Pharmacy alumni.

A success story in the field of Pharmacy is Damien Killsback, Northern Cheyenne now a Captain in the Indian Health Service, directing the Lame Deer IHS clinic.  Damion Killsback, PharmD, MPH, and Captain, I.H.S. Public Health Service and CEO, Northern Cheyenne Service Unit Indian Health Service.

The child of a single mother, Damion said that growing up in Busby, Mont., (the White River Cheyenne community) was “not that much fun.” However, he credits his mother Jackie Tang for requiring very strict standards, urging her three sons to gain an education. Thus, after attaining his initial college degree, it took another six years for Damien to become a pharmacist. “I was trained as a boy to come back home and help my people,” he explained. “We need to encourage our other young ones to follow that way.

“Graduating many Native pharmacists is really impactful,” said NACOE Program Coordinator Wilena Old Person.

The four-year grant will bolster continued efforts to increase Native clinical and campus-based faculty, support research to help alleviate health disparities, and provide cultural training relevant to health care and behavioral health. The grant is directed by Skaggs School of Pharmacy faculty members Lori Morin, Mark Pershouse and Cherith Smith.

With the support of federal grants, the school has graduated 85 Native American pharmacists. It ranks among the top five schools nationally for the highest number of American Indian and Alaska Native Doctor of Pharmacy students, including 11 students enrolled this academic year.

While the numbers are impressive, Old Person credits the program’s success to the supportive, student-centered environment cultivated within NACOE. The center works with Native UM pharmacy or pre-pharmacy students and connects them with services like tutoring and mentorship, as well as a community of University staff and peers who share a spectrum of Indigenous identities.  

“I think having Native people in Native-focused grants is really important,” said Old Person, who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, MT before graduating from UM with a history degree. “I work with students who look like me. I can help advocate for them.”

Nano Stiffarm, a Gros Ventre tribal member and descendent of the Blackfeet, Cree and Little Shell tribes, transferred to UM after a year at Montana State University initially to pursue his dream of becoming a pharmacist. He also found connection and community on campus through NACOE mentorship with the  UM’s Health Careers Opportunity Program

“One thing I noticed throughout my time at UM is there are a lot of programs for Native students,” Stiffarm said. “That was always really attractive to me, that support system.”

Also hailing from Browning, Stiffarm said the support system helped his transition from a small town to living in an urban area where his entire high school class could fit into a single anatomy classroom. Finding connection, community and support helped him feel like he wasn’t just a number. 

Now in his last year of the Doctor of Pharmacy program, Stiffarm is doing a pharmacy rotation in Hardin, Mont. near the Crow Reservation in addition to completing an MBA. He’ll apply to residency programs in the fall, bringing him one step closer to his end goal of returning home to Browning and serve his community as a pharmacist.  

Pharmacy graduates often return to work in their Native communities, Old Person said. Each improves the level of health care access and lessens health disparities while providing care with the cultural needs and norms of Tribal or rural communities in mind.

“In rural areas, we know access to health care is just not the greatest. Pharmacists are, a lot of the time, the most accessible health care providers.” Stiffarm said. “I’ve always just wanted to influence the people in my community.”

Killsback, who now deals with the Northern Cheyenne community as Director of the Lame Deer IHS clinic agrees. “We have a serious shortage of health care providers,” he said. “More of our educated health professionals should come back home to help their people.”

(Contact Clara Caufield at acheyennevoice@gmail.com)

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