FARGO — Ciciley Littlewolf joined the National Guard on a dare.
“Women can’t be in the military,” she remembered her high school classmate teasing. The next day she signed up for the Guard. Her mother had to approve the paperwork since she was only 17.
"It was one of the silliest, best decisions I ever made,” she said. “I remember telling him, well, I’m going to do more than you, and I’m going to outrank you.”
Now, two decades later, she did it.
She initially scored high enough on her military entrance exam to become a medic and went to Kosovo on her first deployment. Since then, she’s become a first lieutenant, earned two bachelor degrees and graduated from the University of North Dakota’s medical school — making her the first female Native American doctor in the North Dakota National Guard.
She’s resilient. Something she said she learned from a young age, watching her mom raise six kids on her own and then losing her two older brothers later on in life. And she’s kept her eye on the goal of wanting to pave a path for her people to follow, just like her ancestor Chief Little Wolf. He led the Northern Cheyenne tribe out of Indian Territory in now-Oklahoma and back to their homeland in Montana 140 years ago.
"I have never felt like giving up. I have never felt like quitting,” she said. “When people felt weak around me, I tried to give them the strength to move forward.”
Conquering the test
On Sept. 18, 2014, Ciciley drove her 2012 gray hatchback Ford Focus from San Francisco to Los Angeles to take the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT.
Every other location in California was booked months in advance, except this one, seven hours away from the apartment she and her husband, Joe Williams, moved into just three months earlier, so he could attend the Academy of Art University.
It was a hot California day. Ciciley doesn’t like the heat. That’s why years earlier she’d waited until winter to go to military basic training. You can always add clothes to get warmer, but you can’t escape the heat, she said.
Her first MCAT score wasn’t competitive enough to get into school, so this was her second time taking the exam. She studied for a year for this, waking up each morning at 7 a.m., sifting through MCAT study books and stacks of note cards, and sipping coffee out of a Pendleton mug.
When she arrived at the Prometric Testing Center, the air conditioning was broken. The administrators said the students could sign up for a future date, but everyone stayed put. Two large industrial fans blew hot air throughout the four-hour exam.
At the break, Ciciley went to the bathroom and soaked her gray T-shirt in cold water under the faucet, wringing it out before she put it back on. Then she sipped on Red Bull and nibbled on saltine crackers and mixed nuts. Those are the snacks she always brings to long tests.
A month later, Ciciley got the results. She passed. She was accepted to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences for the 2015 school year, and she and her husband moved to Grand Forks. Now, four years later, she’s one of the 0.56 percent of Native doctors in the country. This month, Ciciley, now 37, started her medical residency program at Sanford Health in Fargo.
"I always tell people, statistically, I shouldn’t be a doctor,” she said. “Statistically I should not have even gotten into medical school because I am no different than the people who live on a reservation.”
Life-altering phone calls
Ciciley grew up in a three-bedroom, yellow house bookmarked between two sets of rolling hills on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in eastern Montana. The nearest neighbor was a half-mile away. She could sometimes hear semi-trucks barreling past on nearby Highway 212.
The house was damaged. It had broken windows and torn screens. To take a bath, Ciciley would heat up water in big pots on the stovetop and haul it to the tub. She grew up with four older siblings and one younger. Her mom, Esther Littlewolf, became single when Ciciley was young, about 4 years old.
They left the reservation when Ciciley was 12 years old and moved to a two-bedroom trailer in Vermillion, South Dakota, so her mom could get her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota — she was the first in the family tree to do so. Meanwhile, Ciciley started sacking groceries at Hy-Vee, so she could buy herself new clothes. She got her driver’s permit at 14, and her coworker gave her a car in exchange for Ciciley’s help in wedding planning.
When she graduated from high school, she enlisted in the military, and then followed in her mom’s footsteps and enrolled at the University of South Dakota.
She gets where she wants to go, her mom said. “I see her do that all the time, setting a goal and figuring out the steps that need to be taken to reach that goal. And then there she goes.”
In February 2003, Ciciley’s phone rang in the middle of the night.
Her little sister called, and Ciciley could barely understand what she was saying through the sobs. Her oldest brother, Anthony Wolfname Jr., had been stabbed in the heart and died from the wound. When then 21-year-old Ciciley returned home to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, yellow caution tape surrounded the bloodied footprints on the white snow where her brother had tried to.
Then three years later, Ciciley’s phone rang again.
Her second oldest brother, Shawn Wolfname, was beaten to death when he got in a fight over a bottle of whiskey with two men, who were later convicted. That second call was the same, Ciciley said. It was the middle of the night, and her little sister could hardly muster the words.
It hasn’t gotten easier to not have them around, Ciciley said. “All these milestones ... their presence has always been missed.”She said she can’t figure out what’s made her resilient. But she said, “I really like to think that maybe I was able to find strength in these situations.”
“It’s OK to keep moving forward,” she said. “It’s not the end.”
'I don’t ever want to forget'
Ciciley bounces into a room.
Her husband of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, first met her 19 years ago at a Tiospaye Student Council meeting at the University of South Dakota. Cic, as he now calls her, “just came bouncing out of the crowd, and then she sort of bounced away,” he said.
“From the onset, she just stood out as someone completely different from anyone else I had known.” They married nine years later.
Ciciley graduated from the university with a degree in criminal justice, but she soon went back to get her medical school prerequisites when she realized she couldn’t shake the itch for medicine. Her professor, Gerald Yutrzenka, said she was determined, and once she decided she wanted to be a doctor, that’s exactly what she did.
In between her first and second years of medical school, she went to the northernmost state of India, called Himachal Pradesh, where she helped set up mobile medical clinics. Her group slept in yellow tents at the base of the Himalayan mountain range.
There was one little boy who walked four miles with his older sister to get to the clinic. He cried with everyone who would try to help him, but with Ciciley, he was calm. “I was the only one who looked similar to him,” she said.
The trip, while challenging, was refreshing, she said. “I try to do things that keep me grounded because I don’t ever want to forget where I came from."
Ciciley said she’s a good chameleon, straddling two worlds on and off the reservation.
Off the reservation, she still maintains her spirituality with her Creator, named Maheo. And in her house, she’s hung Indigenous art on the walls. Even so, returning home and hearing others speaking the Northern Cheyenne language makes her feel “culturally starved,” she said.
But her tribe is proud of her. When she finished medical school in May — as one of four Native Americans in a class of 73 total — the vice president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Winfield Russell, came to her graduation.
“This is the highest accomplishment that one of our people can make,” he said. “I want her to be recognized.”
Written by Native American issues reporter Natasha Rausch. Contact info firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @n_rausch21.