FARGO — Marlinda Haudley met a female Native American dentist named Tamana Begay six years ago at a summer institute for aspiring medical professionals.

Begay, like Haudley, is a Navajo. Or as Haudley said, Begay was the first physician she’d seen who looked like her.

That meeting changed Haudley’s course. Before, she aspired to be a dental hygienist, serving the Navajo Nation located in the southwestern part of the United States. Now, she’s set out to eventually become a dentist — a feat less than a percent of American Indians attain.

Someday, Haudley hopes to be the Indian Health Services oral health director for the Navajo Nation.

“(Begay) was part of that small percentage of providers trying to make an impact in Native communities, and being the ultimate changemaker,” Haudley said. “So that’s what I want to do.”

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Now, at 27 years old, with a bachelor’s in human nutrition from Arizona State University in hand, Haudley has started her second year at North Dakota State University where she is pursuing a Master of Public Health with a specialization on the American Indian population, with the help of a scholarship from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Haudley said she wanted to learn about public health and oral health disparities among Native American populations — which suffer from the poorest oral health of any population, according to a Pew study — before she applies to dental school.

“For Native communities, I wanted a better understanding of how historical, generational trauma impacts the needs right now,” she said. “In my program we learn a lot about the Native American history, how that impacts our health, our well-being.”

Of her current graduate class at NDSU, she said she’s one of the only students pursuing the oral health field.

“I think that’s something that really motivated me to go into dentistry,” she said. “It’s not really talked about, dentistry and oral health, compared to medicine and nursing.”

On the Navajo Reservation, she said cavities are prominent and dental care is limited, with some families having to drive long distances to reach a provider. As a kid, she remembers receiving teeth cleanings from dental vans that came by her school.

Haudley grew up outside the small town of Chinle, Ariz. Her family lived almost two hours from the nearest large grocery store, and they didn’t have electricity or running water — something she never thought much about until her college classmates referred to it as a “disparity.”

“We just hauled water, and eventually my dad bought a generator,” she said. “We were totally fine.”

Studies show children of impoverished families often lack toothbrushes. In North Dakota alone, only half of the state’s rural, low-income Native American third graders claimed to have a toothbrush at home, according to the North Dakota Dental Foundation.

“It costs money to buy toothbrushes, to buy toothpaste, to buy floss,” Haudley said. “So if a family is struggling financially, buying a toothbrush is not going to be on top of the list, as opposed to food.”

Haudley has a big, white smile that gives her confidence. And she said she wants to pass that onto her patients through actions as simple as regular teeth cleanings.

Her confidence spreads to the classroom, too, where she isn’t afraid to be the loudest person — and even the only Native American — in a group, she said. Since moving to North Dakota, she said she’s been a constant educator, explaining to others the culture and history of her tribe.

Sometimes she misses the comfort of home and familiar faces, she said. But often, when her mom calls her, they converse in the Navajo language to give her a taste of home.

Eventually, after earning her master’s and becoming a dentist, she wants to return to her family and home to help educate members of her tribe and treat their oral health from a holistic perspective.

“I would like to be the one that my community says, 'This person is from my community, this person understands, this person looks like me,'” she said, and have “that impact from elders all the way to little kids.”