FARGO — Madonna White Bear Azure remembers being the only American Indian in nursing school at the University of North Dakota back when she graduated in 1982.
Now there are programs dedicated to recruiting and retaining native nurses at UND, and at North Dakota State University where the Indigenous Wisdom in Nursing (I-WIN) program had its first graduate in 2016.
That year it was reported 242, or less than 2 percent, of the state's nearly 14,800 nurses were American Indian, according to I-WIN director Loretta Heuer, who hopes an award-winning documentary will help increase the number of American Indians in the health care workforce.
"Essence of Healing: Journey of American Indian Nurses" premiered in April 2016 and has since gained recognition at film festivals. The documentary, which features the stories of 14 American Indian nurses from the northern Plains, won the 2017 Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Media Award in October and the Best Service Film Award from the American Indian Film Festival in November.
Heuer said the documentary began as a research project trying to answer the question of "how can we get more Native American students into the profession of nursing."
"There weren't any role models in the media," she said, adding that American Indians aren't always "portrayed in a positive manner."
And so a partnership was formed with Bismarck-based KAT Communications, I-WIN and UND's Recruitment and Retention of American Indians into Nursing (RAIN) program. Heuer took on the role of executive producer, and the filmmakers conducted in-depth interviews with native nurses who talked about the challenges and rewards of working in the field.
Azure said she was honored to be included in the film, which she believes is a great tribute to American Indian nurses. Within the 58-minute film, she shares her 35-year journey, starting as a staff nurse with Indian Health Services and working her way up to administration. Now retired, she has a consulting business and still works in community health.
Azure said having enough health care workers is always an issue for native communities.
"Our reservation, Fort Berthold, is a huge geographical area and at times can be a challenge to get to each community," she said. "We're getting older, and so we're going to need more native nurses to help take care of the elders."
With the I-WIN and RAIN programs, Azure said, there is more support for native nurses to succeed and help provide for the community's growing needs.
Heuer said there are plans to present the documentary at high schools and colleges to encourage students to pursue nursing.
I-WIN graduated three nurses at NDSU in December, and there are seven currently enrolled, with three more students joining in January. However, Heuer said funding for the program is anticipated to run out in June, so she is in the process of applying for a grant.
Copies of the film are available through the North Dakota State University bookstore in Fargo and the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck.