I come from Zuni Pueblo, a community of about 10,000 tribal members who speak Zuni, a language unrelated to any other language in the world. The Pueblo of Zuni is one of the 19 Pueblos of the 23 tribes in New Mexico and is home to an Indian Health Service comprehensive community health center that serves the Zuni people as well as other surrounding Native American communities.
Growing up in a not-so-diverse-community, such as Zuni, where the only non-natives we saw were school teachers and doctors, I recognized that there existed a cultural barrier to health care services. My people avoided the hospital for reasons such as, “They will take my blood and use it to research us.” Or, “I don’t know what the doctor is telling me.” Underutilization of the clinic was partly based on distrust of Western medicine from historical traumas to native people of years past. However, the major reason was from the frustrations felt by Zuni patients when trying to communicate with non-Zuni providers. This cost a heavy price as certain ailments were left untreated and sent mortality rates soaring. I wanted all of that to change. I made a life goal to bridge that communication gap by training to become a physician. My initial step focused on demystifying internal anatomy through art.
I created 14 total anatomical paintings using chalk pastel with ink overlay. Twelve of the paintings are permanently displayed at the Zuni Indian Health Service lobby. My painting DNA, on this cover of this issue, was chosen to submit to Academic Medicine not by me but by the community through a short survey. The DNA strand in the painting contains symbols of all existing and extinct clans in Zuni. An individual’s main clan is from the mother, the secondary clan from the father. Traditional form of kinship is compared to heredity and genetics.
When my paintings went on the walls, the community reactions surprised me. The paintings opened a dialogue on health care. Community members approached me and asked about the heart, DNA, and brain in a context of general physiology. They allowed the Zuni people to connect their traditions and culture to their well-being, to ask questions about their insides and how to maintain those systems. The pieces are somewhat technical but are not textbook anatomy due to the Zuni pottery designs I embedded in the molecules, muscles, and bones. By using familiar designs, I intrigued Zuni community members. My traditional knowledge and my studies in biology allowed me to create these paintings for a community where I will one day return as a physician.
My paintings have raised the idea that inclusivity and understanding of Native American culture are beneficial when communicating the complexities of medicine and science to native patients. Working alongside scientists and cultural liaisons through the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy Community Environmental Health Program, I continue to create visual artwork that translates science for our Native American cohorts. My works have been positively received in communities affected by abandoned uranium mines in the Southwest and other tribal lands in the United States.
Through my paintings, including DNA, I have learned that there is not only a need for verbal translation but also for nonverbal translation in ways that connect to the cultures of the people we serve—like through art. It is important to be open to other cultural perspectives than our own so that no community goes without proper access to health care.