Seattle Indian Health Board’s residency program trains family doctors in a federally qualified community health center with a team of family and pediatric physicians, nursing professionals and traditional healers.

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As graduation season ushers forth future leaders, a spiritual ceremony honored two new family doctors trained in Seattle.

Instead of donning mortarboards to toss in the air, graduates of the Seattle Indian Health Board’s residency program were wrapped in Native songs, blessings and blankets.

Annette Squetimkin Anquoe of the Colville Confederated Tribes is the chief traditional health officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board. She explained before the blanket ceremony that it is a type of spiritual medicine.

“They are wrapping you. They are thanking you. They are acknowledging you,” she said. “When this happens, we are all witnesses here. When you pass this on to your relatives, and your witnesses, that’s how the passing of tradition happens in tribes.”

Dr. Collette Harris, 31, of Kirkland, the program’s first black graduate, called the ceremony a “transformative and spiritual experience.”

“It doesn’t always feel like the journey matters very much,” she said. “This whole process really had meaning.”

Harris had tears streaming down her face as Dr. Socia Love-Thurman and Dr. Terry Maresca prepared to envelop her in a yellow, blue and red blanket made by Eighth Generation, a local Native-owned company.

“She reminds me of the type of doctor we should all be,” said Love-Thurman of Harris.

The Seattle Indian Health Board’s residency program, started in 1994, was the first in the country to focus on educating doctors on the care of urban Indians and Alaska Natives. It is a satellite of the Swedish Family Medicine Residency Program at Cherry Hill and the University of Washington’s Family Medicine Residency Network, so residents have access to a variety of sites and circumstances to gain experience.

Dr. Mikaela Alger, 29, originally from Reno, Nevada, was the other graduate of the residency program alongside Harris. She said she had been looking forward to the blanket ceremony since she watched one in her first year.

“It was really emotional,” she said.

Both doctors cited a commitment to social justice and a focus on social determinants of health as part of what set their experiences apart from more traditional residencies.

“Social determinants of health are the environmental factors that play into health,” said Alger. Poverty, housing, socio-economic status, race are all examples. “Knowing that there are factors outside of just the body,” she said.

“We really have to be advocates for systemic changes,” said Harris. “That is how we will fix health disparities.”

Alger hasn’t solidified her future plans yet, but she is applying to work in tribal-affiliated clinics.

Harris is going to practice outpatient family medicine at the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center in Seattle’s Central District. It fits her interest in social justice, as the clinic was founded during the civil-rights movement by local activists in the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party.

“I really hope to be a role model for our patients,” said Harris. “Representation matters.”