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Joshua "Teague" Rutherford

Joshua “Teague” Rutherford, stands inside the Payne Family Native American Center at the University of Montana recently. With a human biology major and minors in global public health and Native American studies, Rutherford believes he will become the first dentist from Fort Belknap. Rutherford will graduate from the University of Montana this year, and in July, he will start a four-year program at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health where he will study under the first Native American dentist in the U.S, Dr. George Blue Spruce. Rutherford’s goal is to return to a reservation in Montana, preferably his own, and work as a dentist and political leader. “Everything I’ve done to this point is because of the rez, because I want to go back and help,” Rutherford said. 

Joshua "Teague" Rutherford remembers feeling the drill in his mouth as the dentist worked on his tooth.

Then 6 years old, Rutherford cried out in pain, but the dentist, a white man working at the Indian Health Service on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, didn't believe his young patient.

"I hated the dentist really bad," Rutherford said.

Several years later, another dentist took good care of him, and the experience seared itself in his mind. At just 10 years old, the Aaniiih Gros Ventre boy knew he wanted to be a dentist when he grew up, and he stuck with his plan through tragedy and the ignorance of others.

When Rutherford was nearly 7 years old, his father, Joshua Thomas Rutherford, was killed in the line of duty as a law enforcement officer for the Blaine County sheriff's department. When Rutherford was 10, his great-grandfather, who was like his second father, lost his battle with lung cancer. When he was 16, his childhood best friend and cousin died as a passenger in the car of a drunk driver.

In Billings, he saw white classmates get help the teachers wouldn't give him despite his asking, and high school counselors tried to dissuade him from his dream of being a dentist. "Maybe you should look into something else."

Rutherford never contradicted them out loud, but in his head, he knew those skeptical counselors were wrong.

This year, Rutherford graduates from the University of Montana, and in July, he's headed to the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health. The human biology major with minors in global public health and Native American studies believes he'll become the first dentist from Fort Belknap.

He also believes some Native American teens are still being deterred from their dreams, and he wants them to see his story as evidence they can disprove doubting adults.

When Rutherford left the reservation and his home in Dodson for Billings, some people at home considered him a traitor, he said. But his goal is to return in four years to a reservation in Montana, preferably his own, and work as a dentist and political leader.

"Everything I've done to this point is because of the rez, because I want to go back and help," Rutherford said.


Rutherford felt alone as a teenager. After he lost his father, then great-grandfather, his mother, Roberta Bettelyoun, moved them to Billings so she could pursue a master's degree in social work.  There, he experienced racism and culture shock.

"I had the rez accent, rez slang," Rutherford said.

In Dodson, he had excelled in school compared to his classmates, but when he transferred to Billings, he scored below proficiency levels. He was treated poorly for being Native American, and he dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Basketball, his mom, and respect for his late loved ones kept him going.

"You should be living in their honor and live life to the fullest since they don't have the chance to," Rutherford told himself.

As he prepared for college, Rutherford considered going to school on the East Coast, mostly because he wanted to run from the pain of his childhood and those who considered him a traitor for leaving. But tradition and financial realities led him to UM.

His mom and dad both went to the flagship, and he always loved the Montana Grizzlies and supported the football and basketball teams in Missoula.

"It was always home to me," Rutherford said.

On campus, he found a community among his fellow human biology majors, and he served as vice president of GrizMed, the college club for premed students. In his final year, he started reaching out to other Native American students on campus and hanging out at the Payne Family Native American Center.

"It was nice to come here and acknowledge that we all feel like we have some of these obstacles to get over and talk about it together," Rutherford said.


As he embarks on his professional life, Rutherford wants to tackle a couple of major issues on the reservations. He wants to address oral health care, and he wants to chip away at the distrust Native Americans have of non-Native people.

"I just want to bridge that connection between the non-Native people and the Native people. I want there to be more of a trusting relationship," Rutherford said.

When Native American families pass stories down generations, the elders teach youngsters history, including painful parts of their past such as involuntary sterilization of American Indian women, Rutherford said. He said the lack of trust is understandable, but it means Native Americans might not want to listen when white dentists try to tell them how to care for their teeth.

Since they were taught that being Native American was wrong and "savage," some turned to alcohol because it allowed them to feel comfortable, he said, and some still feel like outcasts, or not American.

"There's so much pain and hurt there. I'm not shy about talking about some of these things because if you don't talk about it, no one is going to know," Rutherford said.

In fact, he believes in Montana, the high schools should teach Native American history as its own class. The state counts seven reservations, and Native Americans account for the largest minority population, yet Rutherford said the only lesson he remembers learning in Billings was about the Trail of Tears.

"It's a major event in history, but there's so much more," he said.

Misconceptions run rampant too, he said, such as the idea that Native Americans live off the government.


Rutherford also wants address oral health care because it's a significant challenge on the reservation.

"When I go back home, all the kids are running around with silver teeth," he said.

Historically, Native Americans ate meats and plants. Processed foods were introduced into their diets quickly, with sugars and carbohydrates, and Rutherford said that change played a role in poor oral health care. So do parents who allow their children to drink soda, he said.

And he said those problems can lead to other health issues, such as diabetes.

"Oral health care is one of the bigger issues I think on the reservation," Rutherford said.

Mark Pershouse, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, said Rutherford is both a unique and emblematic student at UM.

He's unique in that he is the first Native American student Pershouse has seen UM send to dental school. Pershouse encourages his medical and dental students to pursue education in public health, which Rutherford did, because it allows them to move beyond treating one patient to examining and improving the entire health care system.

"That makes you very remarkable and attractive to a dental school," Pershouse said of Rutherford. "You're not just going to be a dentist, you're going to be a great dentist."


Rutherford is also the type of student UM helps nurture, a person others such as high school counselors dismissed.

On paper, some students might not look attractive to other schools, and their scores won't necessarily be the highest in their class, Pershouse said. But he's trying to expunge the idea that certain students won't make it to medical or dental school if their scores are lower because he said data show they can succeed.

"We don't have a crystal ball" in premedical sciences. "We just have a lot of faith. When we see drive and motivation and dreams, we'll follow. We do follow a lot," he said.

UM accepts 92 percent of applicants. From where he sits, Pershouse said it's not uncommon to see students with many hurdles excel with support from advisers.

"We call them diamonds in the rough, people that have all the capabilities to be superstars, but it's in the distance. And that distance is covered in four years (at UM) with a lot of help and a lot of drive on their part," Pershouse said.

At times, he said it isn't easy, with students working four jobs or with a parent in prison.

"We hold on as long as the student has that dream. We hold on and help them. It's a hard thing to do."

In May, Rutherford will graduate from UM, then head to Billings with his mom for a month, and then move to Arizona. There he'll study under the first Native American dentist in the U.S., Dr. George Blue Spruce, who he said used to be a dean and still works there part time.

According to the Native American Oral Health Care Project of the American Dental Association, of the 550 dentists employed by the Indian Health Service and tribal health programs in 2011, fewer than 70 were Native American. And it counted just one Native American dentist for every 35,000 Native Americans.

On July 9, Rutherford will get his white coat to join the ranks: "I'm not going to wear it a whole lot, but it's official."

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University of Montana, higher education