Dr. Edwin Chappabitty Jr. is spending his retirement from the Indian Health Service (IHS) pursuing long-term interests he didn’t have time for during his career and giving back to the institutions that made his career possible. Chappabitty, Comanche/Fort Sill Apache, retired from the IHS in August 2008, having come to the service as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed, non-military government agency under the purview of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As one of five children in his family growing up in Lawton, Oklahoma, he says his early opportunities were restricted by a lack of ready resources. After graduating from high school, he recalls, “I was accepted to Harvard but with five kids my family was too poor to buy me a bus ticket” to Boston. So he went to a local junior college and then on to Oklahoma State University (OSU), from which he graduated with a B.S. in zoology in 1967. He served five years in the Army as a field artillery officer, and did a stint in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, where he was awarded a Bronze Star. He went to Dartmouth College in 1972 for postgraduate work and then applied to several medical schools. He had a clear but perhaps questionable criterion for which school he would attend: “I chose the University of Colorado because I wanted to learn how to ski.”
By 1980 Chappabitty had earned his medical degree. His internship at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque introduced him to family practice, where he remained for the rest of his career. “I’ve always been in family practice, delivering babies, stitching people up.” In 1983 he accepted a commission in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps as an IHS doctor. “I came back to Lawton and worked there for 25 years,” he says. “I enjoyed myself in the front line of medicine. I really enjoyed being a physician. Then, when I turned 66, I decided it was time to do some of the other things I wanted to do.”
One of those things was to assist American Indian college students. Chappabitty had been giving donations to the Reserve Officers Training Corps and to OSU’s Zoology Department when he realized he could have more influence if he set up a scholarship in the department. The Edwin Chappabitty Jr. M.D. Scholarship in Zoology was established at OSU this year when Chappabitty pledged to donate $1,000 a year for 10 years. He set the requirements himself: recipients have to be a member of a federally recognized American Indian tribe, have an interest in the fields of zoology, physiology or biology, have one-quarter Indian blood according to a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, and have a GPA of at least 3.0.
When some colleagues said his academic standard was too high, Chappabitty argued that a student would have to have a GPA of at least 3.2 even to apply to medical school. “The scholarship is to encourage students to go on to higher education and to consider a career in the health field,” he says.
Chappabitty wants to help American Indian students along the way, to give them support as they undertake what can be a daunting challenge. “I tell them getting admitted to college is one day, staying is four years.”
The need for American Indians in the health field is great. According to Chappabitty, who is a member of the Association of American Indian Physicians, the total number of American Indian doctors in the country is about 2,400, of which about 400 are members of the association. To put that number in perspective, in the U.S. 309 people in every 100,000 are doctors; for American Indians, that number is 20. There are 83,000 faculty members in U.S. medical schools; just 140 of them are American Indians. The total number of applicants to U.S. medical schools last year was 42,742; only 415 self-identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native. Of that 415, only 191 actually got into medical school.
“I believe this scholarship program can do some good for Indian people,” Chappabitty says. “Hopefully some of these students plan on going home after their education,” though he acknowledges how difficult that can be.
He often talks to parents and grandparents, urging them to encourage their children to pursue higher education. “OSU is an outstanding school with lots of Indian students. Let’s make it a little easier for them,” he says. His contribution to the scholarship is just the start; he hopes others concerned about the health of American Indians and the success of American Indian college students will also contribute.
The OSU scholarship is just one of Chappabitty’s post-retirement projects. “I had the idea for a veterans’ memorial for Native American military several years ago.” He explains that “the first four songs at a pow wow are veterans’ songs. They still cry for a son who died in Korea.”
Chappabitty has been working with the Comanche Indian Veterans Association to establish a memorial at Fort Sill. Built by Buffalo Soldiers in 1869 to control the tribes of the Southern Plains, Fort Sill was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Most of the original stone buildings remain, and the newer buildings will be torn down as the site is developed, says Chappabitty, who served as a family doctor for 25 years at the IHS hospital at Fort Sill. The Buffalo Soldiers were two U.S. Army Cavalry regiments and two infantry regiments composed of African American soldiers (with white officers) formed in 1866. Many of the troops came from the all-Black Army regiments that fought during the Civil War for the Union.
Chappabitty and others spent three days at Fort Leavenworth, where the Buffalo Soldier Monument was dedicated in 1992, talking to officials there about the complexities of financing and building such a monument. Their conclusion: “We’ll have to be retired before we can build this monument.” For Chappabitty, that time has come, and he is making the most of it.