Letter: How to Stop Brain Drain on Indian Reservations

A doctor explains his decision to return to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation after medical school.

Matt Volz / Getty

The Blackfeet Brain Drain

After leaving to pursue an education, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain wrote in November, some Native Americans find themselves stuck between a longing to help their community and the lack of viable employment back home. “All too often,” he observed, “success for reservation Indians means leaving your heart in your homeland.”

I would like to add to Sterling HolyWhiteMountain’s article. I too am a Blackfoot living and working on the reservation. As I was growing up, my grandparents had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity in their one-room home where they raised their six children. My father’s generation began the quest for the promises of higher education by leaving for school. I remember quite well my grandfather telling me, “It’s a white man’s world, and it runs on education. If you don’t get an education, you’ll live like this. Do you want to live like this?” The chorus of “No, Papa” rang from all of us children sitting in his car. His point was: Go get your education, see the world, expand your mind, then come home.

After attending Cornell University as an undergraduate, then for medical school, I returned as a physician. I have met many highly educated Native people who have chosen to return home to stay and be an agent of change. We need the educated artists and writers of our people to stay and be the nidus of a collective of writers and artists that will take root and blossom in future generations. If you want a certain standard of living now that the reservation doesn’t have then yes, leave. But if you want to fight the good fight and be that agent of change here and now, I invite you to return home and stay.

Ernest J. Gray, M.D.
East Glacier Park, Mont.

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain replies:

Dr. Gray,

I want to thank you for your response to my article; it is a rare moment when two people from the same indigenous community are able to dialogue, if only briefly, in a way that allows other Americans access and insight to our world.

Thank you also for the service you have done for the people on our reservation; Native doctors are rare, and we are lucky to have one of our own working at the hospital. My sisters speak highly of you, and are deeply appreciative of the help you have given during their pregnancies and with their children as they’ve grown.

Your grandfather’s words are as true today as they were then: We have no choice, for now, but to live in an American world. I heard these same things when I was growing up, and believe that every Indian who gets an education should find some way to help other Indians, particularly those from one’s own tribe. It was a struggle for me to justify leaving our community to pursue my writing, with so much need there in so many areas of life. However, I believe in the power of art to change lives—though not the way we usually talk about change—and to make people more honest and beautiful. In order to put myself in the best position to make the best art I can, I had to leave home. It was the hardest decision of my adult life. If I can write one thing true enough to show our part of Indian country, in all its complexity and beauty and difficulty, though, then I will have done something worth doing. And it will not have been only for myself. I still intend to more directly help people on our reservation; I just don’t know how or when that will be.

Sterling HWM

P.S. My mother recently reminded me of the time last winter when she had pneumonia and you came to check on her during a snowstorm. It goes without saying that our family is grateful.