Patients walking through the doors of the dental clinic where Crystal Willie Sekaquaptewa practices in Monument Valley, Utah, have often traveled at least two hours to see her.
They’ve crossed barren plains and desert or wound down mountain roads, more than likely not encountering an urban area or a shopping center to speak of, and maybe not even another traveler.
And there’s a good chance that their only language is one of the several Navajo dialects spoken across the 27,000-square mile expanse of the Navajo reservation spanning Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
“It’s very rural,” said Sekaquaptewa, the first Native American woman dentist in the Utah Navajo Health System. “Even when they get to Monument Valley, all we have is the clinic, a grocery store, a gas station, two hotels — and all that is pretty spread out.
“It’s not for everyone,” she said, “but I love it. I feel like I’m in a great place to serve this community, to serve my people.”
So when patients walk through the door and say they have a toothache (“Shí woo nesgah” in Navajo), Sekaquaptewa can answer in Navajo.
“A lot of dental words don’t directly translate very easily,” she said. “We haven’t quite figured out the best way to say ‘gums.’ But I learn a little more every day, learn a little more from different dialects. For a patient to walk in and see that I can speak their language and for them to say, ‘Oh, you’re Navajo!’ puts a lot of patients at ease. It goes a long way toward trust.”
Trust is foundational to what Sekaquaptewa is doing in her practice, a foundation anchored in her youth on the southeastern end of the Navajo Reservation in Toadlena, New Mexico, and among the generations in her family.
When she was in preschool, Sekaquaptewa drew a picture of herself as a dentist. In third grade, she drew another picture of herself engaged in the same occupation and wrote “Dr. Crystal” in bold letters.
“And I remember my grandmother, she didn’t understand why someone would want to be a dentist,” Sekaquaptewa recalled. “My grandmother spoke no English, only Navajo. She’d never been to a doctor of any kind who looked like she looked, spoke how she spoke.
“I remember thinking how cool it would be if my grandmother had a Navajo doctor, someone who understood her language and her culture,” she said. “I had never seen a Navajo dentist. I started thinking that I wanted to be that dentist. And that became my goal. My grandmother was my drive.”
Following completion of her bachelor’s degree at Southern Utah University, where she was part of that institution’s Rural Health Scholars program and volunteered with dental clinics serving the Paiute Tribe of Utah, Sekaquaptewa enrolled at the Creighton School of Dentistry.
Choosing Creighton, Sekaquaptewa said, meant she knew she was going to get the kind of education that would best serve her in a return to the wide-open spaces of the rural Navajo Reservation.
Practice-ready dentists who can deal with an array of situations, from regular checkups to specialty dentistry, are in wide demand in rural areas.
“If people are going to drive two, three, four hours to come to you, you have to be ready to help in any situation,” Sekaquaptewa said. “Sending them to a specialist is more time traveling and we’re not just in the business of pulling teeth.
“That’s what I think I love most about this job: being able to help across the spectrum, to find solutions for people who have put their trust in you.”
Kelly Gould, director of extramural programs for the School of Dentistry, said Sekaquaptewa’s enthusiasm and desire were on display from her first interactions with dental faculty and staff.
“It was very clear to all of us that she wanted to be a dentist, and she had very compelling reasons for wanting to be a dentist,” Gould said. “Her personality is geared toward a spirit of service. She wanted to do her very best to learn all she could and to work as hard as she could because she knew where she wanted to take her skills and leadership.”
Upon graduation from dental school, Sekaquaptewa returned to Utah and took up another lifelong passion, competitive Native American dancing. She was leading a summer instructional session in the art for some youth when a father of one of the dancers said he was looking for a dentist at the Utah Navajo Health System clinic in Monument Valley.
With no hesitation, both Sekaquaptewa and her husband, Kevin, a teacher and a member of the Hopi Tribe, packed up and made their way to the little town on the Utah-Arizona border, where a pair of sandstone buttes resembling mittens and shooting several hundred feet above the desert floor are the definition of a high-rise.
“It’s not for everyone, living out here,” Sekaquaptewa said. “My husband says I’m one of those rare people who knows what they want to do from the time they’re very young and then sees it all the way through. I feel lucky that way. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”
And though she died before seeing Sekaquaptewa live out the dream that began in her, Sekaquaptewa’s grandmother remains the inspiration in the young dentist’s career.
“I see my grandmother in the many other grandmothers who come through the clinic’s door every day,” Sekaquaptewa said. “In being able to learn from them and hear the stories, I feel like I’m carrying forward a legacy from my grandmother.
“I’m daily learning the importance of what I do for my people,” she said. “In me achieving my dream, I hope that there will be others who see what they can do. I’m so grateful for that.”