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An Eastern Shoshone MD-PhD student stars in a short doc nominated for the Sundance Film Festival

A young girl sits on the back of a brown horse with an older man standing by, holding the reins.
Method Communications
A young Jenna Murray with her grandfather on the Wind River Reservation. The film dêtetsi vo'i oninjakan Winding Path follows Murray on her journey to become a physician and researcher and explores themes of family, ancestral connection and access to health care.

A short film called dêtetsi vo'i oninjakan Winding Path was nominated for this year’s Sundance Film Festival – the largest independent film festival in the U.S. The film follows Eastern Shoshone descendant Jenna Murray, who’s currently an MD-PhD student at theUniversity of Utah School of Medicine & Department of Population Health Sciences. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hannah Habermann talked with Murray about identity, access to medical care, and the importance of culturally-informed mental health support.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Hannah Habermann: In the opening sequence of the film, you talk about how complicated it is to be an urban Indian. You were born and raised in Las Vegas, but you have deep roots with family on the Wind River Reservation. Can you talk a little bit about that tension?

Jenna Murray: I think as a kid, my dad, who is Native and where I get my heritage from, he’s always been really open and talked a lot about our culture and traditions and where we come from. That's always been a pretty solid part of my identity from a really young age.

With that in mind, as I got older, I would talk about my ancestry and my experience being Native, but also being German and Scandinavian, and what that's like. It's funny, the older I got, the more people would tell me who I am and tell me what I'm not. It definitely made me self-conscious about my own identity and all these intersecting identities that I have. And I think I just ended up shutting down. I was still very much personally involved in [what my identities are] and what that means to me, but I didn't really talk too much about it until I got to college.

A big catalyst for that was after my grandfather passed away. I think there's a common saying that every time a Native elder dies, a library burns because we practice such traditional oral storytelling. I remember feeling like there was so much that I wanted to talk to him about and ask him that now, I will never get the chance to do. With that kind of heavy realization, I really tried to start learning more and integrating more of that into my life again, really talking with my dad and my aunts and uncles and my great aunt, my grandpa’s siblings, just making sure to stay just as connected with that part of who I am as all other aspects.

HH: Your grandfather is a big part of this film, and in 2011, he passed away from what you describe as a relatively minor heart attack. You had this really powerful quote in the film – “It's almost like you have to choose between having that access and having good health care, and remaining on tribal lands.” Could you talk a little bit about that tension of living on reservations or on ancestral homelands and having access to things like health care?

JM: This is something that I feel really strongly about because when tribes entered these treaties with the U.S. government in the 1800s, a big part of these treaties were being promised education and health care. And I think both sides are definitely lacking.

We have access to Indian Health Services, which is the federal health care system for Native people. But it's so limited, it's underfunded, and there's not enough providers. When you start thinking about really rural areas and reservations, it's really hard to convince people to come out and work there and live there, especially for more than one or two years, which a lot of folks do to get loan forgiveness benefits.

So, it's super important that we get providers, physicians and nurses, and also teachers and educators that will work on reservations in these rural tribal areas but also stay for a long time. And that's just not happening, not just on Wind River, but really everywhere.

My grandpa didn't have any serious underlying heart conditions and if he lived in Salt Lake City, I really believe that he would be alive today. He would have just gotten transported right over to that trauma bay and gotten taken care of. Instead, in his story, which I think is really similar not just to Native people but to people who live in rural areas, he was transported multiple times. It's all about time, and by the time he was able to access care, it was just too late. He was brain dead.

I think many, many people, Native people and non-Native people who live in rural areas, have stories like that. And it all starts with just primary care. Are you able to see a physician every year? Are you able to get your high blood pressure meds? Are you able to do routine blood work?

For Native folks, it's really important because there's a lot of health disparities that we face that are a direct result from historical trauma. When people came and settled the U.S., they introduced new foods that we had never eaten before, like wheat and sugar, and we just had a complete lifestyle change. That leads to things like obesity and diabetes and all these health conditions that affect Natives way more than other folks in the U.S. With that in mind, it's even more important that we get them care and we're just not doing that. It's really sad just how many people fall through the cracks and pass away from preventable disease.

HH: In the film, you're very open about your own challenges with mental health, as well as substance abuse. For you, what were some of the supports and tools that helped you on your own journey to healing and to recovery?

JM: I’ve pretty much struggled with mental health, specifically depression and anxiety, for most of my life. It's just been part of my story for so long. For a long time I just lived with it, and when my grandfather passed away, I remember my depression just getting way worse and not really knowing how to manage it, but trying my best.

When I got to college, it just really manifested into coping with substances and that almost ruined my life. I tried everything, I tried a bunch of different programs, and I just could not get sober.

The thing that worked for me was I finally went to an Indian Health Service-contracted health center that's owned by the Paiute Tribe in Las Vegas, and I started working with a Native therapist, We did a lot of really holistic care and started integrating more cultural practices and beliefs into western, evidence-based practices. That really worked for me, that's what finally resonated and I've been able to be sober since. I have this really good, beautiful life now.

It’s something that I really like to talk about because I think a lot of people don't know that it's even possible to integrate more traditional healing and medicine into Western medicine. I don't think people realize what an impact that can have for people who are Native and have that ancestry.

HH: You're currently in your second year of an MD-PhD program at the University of Utah – what is that like and where do you hope to take a career in medicine?

JM: I'm so grateful to have this opportunity and to be able to be a physician-in-training and get to do research that's really meaningful and personal to me. I really do think it's a testament to what recovery can look like, whether that's mental health, substance use, etc.

But med school is hard, going back to school is really hard after taking time off. It’s hard being the first person in my family to do this. I have classmates who are multiple-generation physicians and come from completely different backgrounds from me and that can feel a little bit isolating. But it's also amazing.

I'm really interested in primary care, I think I want to either do family medicine or maybe OB-GYN. I would love to work with tribal communities, whether that's my own or others. In one way, just to at least fill a gap on my end. At least I can be a provider and give care to people like my grandfather.

The treatment that I received for my substance use and mental health was life changing. I want to do research that really highlights that and focuses on it, because I don't think a lot of people know that much about culturally-informed treatment and medicine and what that looks like. That’s really important to me, so I hope I can continue doing research with Native communities. Right now, I'm lucky I get to do it in substance use and I get to work with women that remind me so much of myself, like, five, six years ago. It's really beautiful, so I hope that I get to continue that work in the future.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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