First American Indian female dentist inducted into Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame

INTERLOCHEN, Mich. – Jessica A. Rickert became the nation’s first American Indian woman dentist in 1975.

Nominated by her brother Levi Rickert in 2008 to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, she will be inducted during a benefit dinner Oct. 21 in East Lansing, along with nine other women being honored for their contributions to society.

Rickert, a descendent of Chief Whitepigeon, for whom the town of White Pigeon, Mich. is named, has helped establish dental clinics for two Michigan tribes and is the author of a dental column read in American Indian newspapers from coast to coast.

The Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame which opened in 1987 on the anniversary of Michigan’s ratification of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, displays cultural and historic exhibits on the achievements of Michigan women. The center also houses the Belen Gallery, which displays the work of Michigan women artists and photographers.

Rickert will be joining more than 200 inductees including Rosa Parks, Betty Ford, Lily Tomlin, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Aretha Franklin and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

To be considered for the Hall of Fame, candidates must have been born or raised in Michigan, or lived there for an extended time. Nominees are sorted into one of two categories – contemporary or historical – and are assessed for their achievements in a variety of areas, including community service, civil rights, entertainment, politics and business. Rickert is one of the contemporary honorees for 2009.

A founding member of the Society of American Indian Dentists, Rickert is only the third American Indian dentist in history.

Attending public schools in Wyoming, Mich., a suburb of Grand Rapids, she became fascinated by math and science as a sixth grader. “I had excellent teachers who encouraged me to think about a health career. I talked to my family doctor who allowed me to put on a white coat and follow him around for a day. It was amazing to me to see how nice he was to everybody and the variety of people who needed help.”

She attended the University of Michigan, graduating with her DDS in 1975 and was one of only six women in her dental class of about 150 students. After graduation she practiced in Allen Park and Birmingham for seven years before moving her practice to Interlochen, where she still practices.

Rickert said her patients are from 2 years old to 102. “No two patients are ever alike and no two dental problems are alike. Every day is something different.”

It was while she was doing research for her book “Exploring Careers in Dentistry,” published in 1983 by Rosen publishing, that she realized she was the first American Indian woman dentist. “I noted that the first American Indian dentist was a man who graduated in 1958, Dr. George Blue Spruce. I was astonished that prior to that date there were no American Indian dentists.”

During her years of private practice she spent time providing dental care to foster children in the Dental Clinic within the Children’s Aid Society in Detroit. She also served on the Michigan Urban Indian Health Council and has been instrumental in expanding access to health care for American Indian communities in Michigan and elsewhere.

In 2005, she was given an award by the American Dental Association in recognition of her work to promote dental care among underserved groups.

Rickert’s hope is that more American Indian women will be nominated to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. “When my brother nominated me he told me that the three American Indian women in the Hall of Fame are all deceased; there were no living ones represented. I couldn’t believe that was possible because in the state of Michigan there are all kinds of accomplished American Indian women.”

To be successful in the health field, according to Rickert, you have to be a hard worker and have a good work ethic. “You need a great character and good heart and should always strive to be as straightforward and truthful as you can be. You have to have a certain personality to be in the health field and be willing to help other people out. Anyone wishing to be successful should develop their whole person, including their personality.”

Rickert is married to Bill Strait and together they have three children and six grandchildren with another one on the way.

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