Looking back on their long careers in nursing, Erma Marbut and Lavenia Diswood take great pride in how they have helped successive generations of Navajo enter the field of health care.
Although they are members of the same tribal nation, Marbut and Diswood have taken very different paths to reach the top of their profession. But their stories are rooted in parents’ hopes for a better life for their children. Both are compelling examples of what happens when encouragement and determination meet opportunity in the form of education.
I met Diswood, 69, in her hotel lobby hours before she was to receive a New Mexico Nursing Legend award on April 2 at the Albuquerque Hotel. She was accompanied by two “daughters”, who are actually nieces, but, as Diswood explained, “in our culture, we say girls.” My conversation with Marbut, 82, took place the following week at the South Valley home she shares with her husband, Royal Marbut, a retired sailor. She, too, was named a legend this month by the New Mexico Center for Nursing Excellence.
What struck me most was the pragmatic way in which they described the courage to be pioneers. There were no role models for Navajos with career aspirations in a technical field. They made do with grit, seemingly unaware of the heights they were scaling.
Roots on reserve
Marbut’s grandparents tried to hide her father, Warren Nilchee, from Bureau of Indian Affairs officials who enforced a government policy of placing young Navajos in boarding schools. BIA found him herding sheep near Shiprock and sent him to the Albuquerque Indian School. After graduating, he enlisted in the army during World War II, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Marbut said.
“He saw France and realized there was more to the world than just the reserve,” she said. So when he returned home, he decided to raise his family in Albuquerque to maximize their educational opportunities. This made Marbut and his siblings special cases among their contemporaries, most of whom – including Diswood – attended Indian boarding schools as young children. Marbut graduated from Highland High in 1959.
Around the same time, 5-year-old Diswood was attending a Bureau of Indian Education boarding school in Farmington, near his family’s ancestral home in Nenahnezad. It was there that she first saw an “all-white” nurse in 1958 and decided that nursing was her calling. She graduated in 1971 near the top of her class at Kirtland Central High School, ready to begin her nursing education at the San Jose Hospital School of Nursing.
Marbut started her career after completing a program at the Indian School of Practical Nursing here in Albuquerque. “It was a BIA program, and if they put you in school, they relocated you,” she said. But instead of assigning her to an Indian Health Service nursing position on the reserve, the BIA sent her to a naval facility in Staten Island, NY, where she worked the cemetery shift in charge of a solarium.
Why, I asked, would the government do this instead of putting her in a position where she could serve her own community in her own language? Marbut shrugged and said, “They saw us as savages. The experiment was intended to help assimilate Native Americans into larger American society, she said. The irony is that Marbut’s parents had already done it their own way when they moved the family to Albuquerque.
Marbut had “a few bad experiences” working in New York, but “in the long run it taught me to be very tolerant,” she said. “It taught me perseverance and character, and gave me the determination to succeed and improve.”
Make the difference
Both women went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing at UNM, with Diswood also earning a master’s degree.
UNM faculty took a keen interest in Diswood’s ability to absorb course material as an undergraduate student – presumably because she was Native American and her academic achievement surprised them somewhat. .
“So they were interviewing me and asking me why you did this or that,” she said. Diswood imagines they were trying to recreate academic paths so that future Native American students could flourish. “They were probably just interested in why I was able to meet the demands of a program that involved a lot of science,” she said.
“My mom never finished high school and my dad did, and they said they were going to do whatever they could to keep their kids going and educated.”
Once in the field working for the Indian Health Service in booking clinics, she faced something her English-speaking colleagues never had to.
There were significant gaps in Diné language and medical terminology. How do you say “intravenous” or “hemodialysis” in Navajo? Diswood had to understand that.
On the clinical side, Diswood performed all kinds of intensive care for patients – but his real gift was in leadership and administration. She established a nursing residency program credited with saving the midwifery unit at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock. The program has also helped fill shortages in public health and emergency nursing.
As a member of the Diné Leadership Nursing Council, she has constantly brainstormed ideas for recruiting, training and retaining nurses and encouraging them to seek higher degrees. She retired as Chief Nursing Officer of NNMC.
Likewise, Marbut was involved in a multitude of Native American nursing associations focused on strengthening the ranks of Native Americans in the nursing professions. She co-founded the New Mexico American Indian Nurses Association. Under her leadership, the association established a mentorship program to increase the percentage of Native American nurses providing care in New Mexico.
But Marbut’s lasting legacy is the creation of scholarship funds. One of his earliest endeavors became a New Mexico institution – the Indian Village at the New Mexico State Fair. In the late 1960s, the Council of American Indians of New Mexico, of which she was a board member, and two other Native organizations launched a campaign to establish an Indian village at the fairgrounds of the state, not only to improve understanding between other cultures, but also to generate money for scholarships. Unknown to many visitors, Navajo tacos or mutton stew bowls purchased at an Indian Village concession stand have supported scholarship programs for decades. Many are awarded to Aboriginal students in health careers.
“Our village promoted the State Fair and allowed it to grow in different ways,” she said. “We were the seed that allowed other aspects to emerge.”
Marbut was inducted into the Navajo Nation Hall of Fame in 2017.
What an honor to speak to these living legends. They could have rested on the laurels of their professional accomplishments, but they led by example and leveraged their careers to give back to their communities – inspiring countless others to follow them into a career in nursing.