Breaking Barriers and Making History: Dr. Jessica Rickert’s Inspiring Story

A northern Michigan woman is not only a trailblazer for other women but for minorities- specifically American Indians or Native Americans.  Dr. Jessica Rickert was the first American Indian Native American Dentistfemale dentist in the country and she so just happens to be in northern Michigan. She’s a Potawatomi American Indian, part of the Algonquian Native American people.

“The Potawatomi have a very precious saying that they live by and that is our people are as a great river. We flow from forever to forever. The river comes from drops of water. From the sky, from the hills, and from the springs. Each individual drop is insignificant.  It’s nothing.  Yet when we all come together, all of us, like a river it cuts a path through anything in its way, even a granite,” says Dr. Rickert.

Her focused mindset and the resilient outlook is only part of where her story begins. Originally from Wyoming, Michigan a small town just outside Grand Rapids, she knew early on what she wanted to spread her wings. “When I was in junior high and you start having counselors talk to you. They were laying out the classes you were supposed to take and I said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’  So that’s how that whole thing started,” says Dr. Rickert.

She applied and would eventually become the only student in her high school graduating class of 1968 to attend the University of Michigan. She had her heart set on dentistry.

“The medical school and the dental school is really what I thought I wanted to do and I went to an appointment with the dental school at the admissions office and they had a senior dental student walk me around.  I saw another dental student casting a gold crown and they were explaining to me this very intricate, complicated procedure, and I was just fascinated. I thought I think I can do this, I want to do this!” says Dr. Rickert.

In the fall of 1971, Rickert entered the University of Michigan dental school and graduated four years later as Dr. Jessica Ann Rickert.  She’d soon realize she was making history. The Society of American Indian Dentists confirmed she was the very first American Indian female dentist.   It became more than just a label.  In fact, she was a trailblazer breaking barriers for women, minorities, and especially people of the Native American culture including her own children.

Dr. Rickert started her dental career in metro Detroit and eventually made the move to northern Michigan. “I set up a private practice with another dentist in the Detroit area and was with him for seven years and then a practice in Interlochen was for sale and so I contacted that dentist and that practice came for sale. I was able to go into that established practice in Interlochen, so most of my career was in private practice in Interlochen,” says Dr. Rickert.

After 41-years in clinical practice, Dr. Rickert retired in 2016 from her office in Interlochen, but her work wasn’t even close to being done.  Now she’s on a new path to bring about change within the Society of American Indian Dentists.

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“At our last meeting, we had determined that in the U.S. there are 300 American Indian dentists now and about 100 of them are female, which is a big increase from when I graduated in 1975. But if we are going to have parody with the general population there should be 3,000 American Indian dentists,” says Dr. Rickert. That’s why she’s determined to get more Native American youth into higher education.

“What I’m doing right now is the Anishinaabe outreach.  I’m working with the Michigan Indian tribes.  There are 12 tribes in Michigan but there are also private organizations in the urban settings. I’m helping them to establish their dental programs and optimize dental care for the American Indian people in Michigan,” says Dr. Rickert.

She’s also taking her work to Washington D.C. “I’ve actually been working with the White House imitative on Native American education and they aren’t just in the STEM program but all the programs.  They’re reaching to the American Indian colleges, the tribes and trying to use this role model series to encourage Native Americans to higher education,” says Rickert.

She speaks at different venues across the country with other members of Native American culture, sharing her life-changing story and continuing to search for change.

“There has been great improvements since I graduated from high school even in my own family.  I think this improvement will continue to go on. I  would like to see fewer health disparities between the American Indian population and the general public population. With the COVID crisis, the American Indian has been hit especially hard, really hard. So that’s because of the health disparities that exist,” says Dr. Rickert.

After all the work she’s accomplished through her dental practice, a prestigious title, and now traveling with her role model series across the united states, one thing stands out: Dr. Rickert has a complete sense of humility and gratitude. “I know I have been blessed, very blessed and I rejoice that I’ve been blessed. I’m thankful,” says Dr. Rickert.

But she does have a message for the current state of affairs we’re seeing in our world. “History of the American Indian and African Americans and Asian Americans and others has not been pretty. It’s been very, very hurtful.  That leads to systemic racism which we do need to recognize is there, but yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift.  That’s why we call it the present. So, we need to take this gift and make the most of it. We need to work together as all people. We’re here now. We need to help our babies, our youth, our teens, our working people, our elders.  All those people need support and we need to take our energy, and put it into supporting the American people – because if we don’t do that, we could self-destruct,” says Rickert.

For more information about Dr. Jessica Ann Rickert and mission through the American Indian Tribal Youth Series, you can contact her at jarickert@charter.net

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