Looking back on long nursing careers, Erma Marbut and Lavenia Diswood are most proud of the ways they helped succeeding generations of Navajos enter the health care field.
Despite being members of the same tribal nation, Marbut and Diswood took very different paths to the pinnacle of their profession. But their stories are rooted in parental hopes of a better life for their children. Both are compelling examples of what happens when encouragement and determination meet opportunity in the form of education.
I met Diswood, 69, in the lobby of her hotel hours before she was presented with a New Mexico Nursing Legend Award on April 2 at the Hotel Albuquerque. She was accompanied by two “daughters,” who are actually nieces, but, as Diswood explained, “In our culture, we say daughters.” My conversation with Marbut, 82, took place the following week in the South Valley home she shares with her husband, Royal Marbut, a retired Marine. She, too, was named a legend this month by the New Mexico Center For Nursing Excellence.
What struck me most was the matter-of-fact way they described the fortitude of being pioneers. There weren’t any role models for Navajos with career aspirations in a technical field. They got by on grit, seemingly unaware of the heights they were scaling.
Roots on the reservation
Marbut’s grandparents tried to hide her father, Warren Nilchee, from Bureau of Indian Affairs officials who enforced a government policy of placing young Navajos in boarding schools. BIA found him herding sheep near Shiprock and sent him to the Albuquerque Indian School. After graduating, he enlisted in the Army during World War II, saw action during the Battle of the Bulge, and was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Marbut said.
“He saw France and realized there was more in the world than just the reservation,” she said. So, when he returned home, he decided to raise his family in Albuquerque to maximize their opportunities to become educated. That made Marbut and her siblings outliers among their contemporaries, most of whom – including Diswood – attended Indian boarding schools as young children. Marbut graduated from Highland High in 1959.
Around the same time, 5-year-old Diswood attended a Bureau of Indian Education boarding school in Farmington near her family’s ancestral home in Nenahnezad. That’s where she first laid eyes on a nurse “dressed all in white” in 1958 and decided nursing was her calling. She graduated in 1971 near the top of her class at Kirtland Central High School ready to begin her nursing training at the San Jose Hospital School of Nursing.
Marbut began her career after completing a program at the Indian School of Practical Nursing here in Albuquerque. “It was a BIA program and, if they put you through school, they relocated you,” she said. But instead of assigning her to an Indian Health Service nursing post on the reservation, the BIA shipped her to a naval facility in Staten Island, N.Y., where she worked the graveyard shift in charge of a solarium.
Why, I asked, would the government do that instead of putting her in a position where she could serve her own community in its own language? Marbut shrugged and said, “They saw us as being savage.” The experience was meant to help assimilate Native Americans into the larger mainstream American society, she said. The irony is Marbut’s parents had already done that in their own way when they moved the family to Albuquerque.
Marbut had “some bad experiences” working in New York City, but, “in the long run, it taught me to be very tolerant,” she said. “It taught me perseverance and character, and gave me the determination to succeed and better myself.”
Making a difference
Both women went on to earn bachelor degrees in nursing at UNM, with Diswood also obtaining a master’s degree.
UNM faculty took an intense interest in Diswood’s proficiency to absorb course material as an undergrad – undoubtedly because she was Native American and her academic success somewhat surprised them.
“So, they would interview me and ask me why did you do this or that,” she said. Diswood imagines they were trying to recreate academic pathways for future Native American students to flourish. “They probably were just interested in why I was able to meet the demands of a program that involved a lot of science,” she said.
“My mom never finished high school and my dad was the same way, and they said that they were going to do everything they could to have their children go on and get educated.”
Once she was in the field working for the Indian Health Service on reservation clinics, she had to contend with something her English-speaking colleagues never had to.
There were major gaps in the Diné language and medical terminology. How do you say “intravenous” or “hemodialysis” in Navajo? Diswood had to figure it out.
On the clinical side, Diswood performed all manner of critical care for patients – but her real gift was in leadership and administration. She implemented a nursing residency program credited with saving the obstetrics unit at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock. The program also helped fill shortages in public health and emergency nursing.
As a member of the Diné Leadership Nursing Council, she constantly brainstormed ideas to recruit, train and retain nurses – and encourage them to seek advanced degrees. She retired as chief nursing officer of NNMC.
Similarly, Marbut has been involved with a host of Native American nursing associations focused on beefing up the ranks of American Indians in nursing professions. She co-founded the New Mexico American Indian Nurses Association. Under her leadership, the association established a mentorship program to increase the percentage of Native American nurses providing care in New Mexico.
But Marbut’s lasting legacy is establishing scholarship funds. One of her earliest efforts became a New Mexico institution – the Indian Village at the New Mexico State Fair. In the late 1960s, the New Mexico Council of American Indians, of which she was a board member, and two other Native organizations began a campaign to establish an Indian Village at the state fairgrounds, not only to improve understanding among other cultures, but also to generate money for scholarships. Unknown to many fairgoers, Navajo tacos or bowls of mutton stew purchased at an Indian Village concession stand have supported scholarship programs for decades. Many are awarded to Native students in health careers.
“Our village promoted the State Fair and allowed it to grow in different ways,” she said. “We were the seed that allowed other aspects to emerge.”
Marbut was inducted into the Navajo Nation Hall of Fame in 2017.
What an honor to talk to these living legends. They could have rested on the laurels of their professional achievements, but they led by example and leveraged their careers to give back to their communities – inspiring countless others to follow them into nursing careers.