Kissendrah Johnson Becomes Pacific Northwest S’Klallam Tribe’s First Dentist

Dental Medicine graduate Kissendrah Johnson is among the college’s 72 graduates in MUSC’s 189th commencement ceremony May 19. Johnson, who is Native American, holds a special woven blanket created by her mother and wears a cedar mortar board that she created for this event. Photo by Anne Thompson

Published June 1, 2018 

CHARLESTON, S.C. — On May 19, 2018, Kissendrah Johnson received her dental medicine degree during the Medical University of South Carolina’s 2018 commencement ceremonies and became the first person in her tribe to earn a doctorate-level degree. She is the S’Klallam Tribe’s first dentist.

Johnson, who is one-quarter North American Indian and a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, is part of the Coast Salish cultural group of the Pacific Northwest coast and comes from a background rich in history, heritage, tradition and cultural experiences. She has always wanted to give back to her culture. “With all the support my tribe has given me through the years, I want to lift them up and honor them. My success is not just for me, it’s their success, too,” she said.

Johnson plans to work as a general dentist for the Indian Health Service, a federal agency that provides health services to about 2.5 million people who are members of federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives throughout the United States. Bringing a personal understanding of language and cultural sensitivity to her intended work in dental practices on tribal land and reservations, Johnson plans to specialize in holistic medicine and aromatherapy— something she thinks will be well–received among native people because of their tribal teachings and holistic beliefs in healing.

Johnson, wearing a traditional handmade cedar hat, joins her Jamestown Canoe family as they prepare for the canoe landing during the Tribal Paddle to Suquamish in August 2009. Johnson is a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe from the northwestern coast of Washington state.

In 2013, there were only about 190 Native American dentists compared to the total number of U.S. dentists. This national shortage means that a majority of dentists working on reservations and Native American lands are non-American Indian dentists. Many non–native dentists work two-year rotations to pay back student loans before leaving to enter private practice and other opportunities. This turnover of dentists has left Native American patients with a compound problem — inconsistent delivery of dental care and a growing buildup of anxiety and distrust towards dentists. One solution to this challenge is recruiting native students to become dentists who serve in these communities.

“I love where I am today and am excited for the future. I know I can be a huge asset to whatever native tribe or community I work for. To me, it will be an honor to serve them,” she said.

It was a summer tribal canoe journey to Lummi Island in 2007 that inspired Johnson to consider dentistry. She had trained as a paddler in her tribe’s canoe family and was invited as a guest to visit the Swinomish Dental Clinic to get a free teeth cleaning. Johnson, who had never been to a dentist, agreed to go, had a good cleaning and a positive experience. At the end of her visit, the dentist complimented her on her teeth and practice of good oral health care. He also suggested that she consider becoming a dentist.

A good student and lover of art and science, Johnson signed up for the Running Start program, a Washington state program that allowed high school juniors and seniors to take college courses for credit. By the time she graduated from high school in 2011, she had earned an associate’s degree in science from nearby Pierce College. She went on to graduate with a degree in biology from the University of Washington in 2013 and started the dental program at MUSC in the fall of 2014.

Johnson, center, joined fellow dental students Courtney Stolz, left, and Hannah Sue, during a clinical rotation in Greenville working with the college’s dental mobile health unit.

By her second year, she started working in the labs and doing clinical rotations, feeling more assured of the path she began. She especially loved working with her hands —  creating dental molds, denture construction, implants, crown preparations and restorations. The patience and concentration required were similar to the time and dedication she spent working on her native basketry or hat weaving projects. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” she decided.

Johnson’s love of dentistry and commitment to providing comprehensive dental care among American Indian communities is what drives her. Poor oral health has plagued some tribal communities because of poverty, isolation and limited access to care. According to a 2016 federal report, almost half of American Indian and Alaska Native children, ages 6 to 9, suffer from untreated tooth decay, compared to 17 percent of children in the general U.S. population.

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