Jessica A. Rickert
First American Indian Woman Dentist
Jessica Rickert, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, DDS,
became the first recognized American Indian woman
dentist. When this descendent of Chief Whitepigeon
attended the University of Michigan School of
Dentistry in the early 1970s, she was the only
American Indian in a class of about 150 students. This
was also a time when there were very few female
dentists or female dental students.
In 2005 Rickert received the American Dental Association's 2005 Access Recognition Award for leadership in helping people in need gain access to dental care. In particular, she was nominated for her work educating American Indians on dental care and encouraging them to pursue careers in the field. In 2009 she was honored for her work by being inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame
Since 1982, Rickert has cared for people of all ages in her private practice in Interlochen Michigan. Her patients come from the small town of Interlochen as well as the surrounding rural areas of orchards and farms. Rickert is the only dentist in the practice. She employs 2 hygienists along with 2½ dental assistants and one dental secretary.
The cheerful consultation and treatments rooms each have a different theme. One is decorated in American Indian designs. The “sailboat room” reflects her love of sailing, which she shares with her husband. The third room, with sheet music on the walls, displays her love of music. (She plays the flute.)
As her schedule permits Rickert works with the Michigan Dental Association in doing school screenings and elder care and education. For many years she wrote a column called "Ask the Dentist" that was published in three American Indian newspapers. Some of these columns are available on her website. (To find the columns, click on "Links".) Rickert is no longer writing these columns because she is dedicating her time to being a board member of the Society of American Indian Dentists.
In 1983 Rickert published a book entitled Exploring Careers in Dentistry. She has updated that book and has made a PDF of the book available on her website. To find the PDF of the book, click on "Links". You can download the book free of charge.
Rickert’s website is also home to her small business called Whitepigeon Enterprises. The business is named after Potawatomi Chief Wahbememe, whose name in English means “White Pigeon”. Rickert is the fifth generation of Chief Wahbememe who in 1830 warned settlers in a village in Southwestern Michigan of an impending attack by other tribes. In gratitude the village was renamed Whitepigeon.
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Rickert was fascinated by the biological sciences and also liked math. “In about the sixth grade, I decided I wanted to be a dentist, a doctor, or a lawyer. As I progressed in school I decided I would be a dentist or a doctor. In part I think my career choice was based on my being impressed by doctors who had taken care of our family, such as Dr. Veltman, who was always kind, gentle and competent.
“When I went to the University of Michigan for undergraduate school, I was pre-med. None of my family members or our friends were professionals. To learn more about the life of a doctor, I volunteered a little at the hospital and got to follow some doctors around. That helped me realize that doctors don’t have much control of their schedules. Their personal lives have to take a back seat.
“I wanted to have a family and have more control over my time, so I visited the dental school and learned all that I could. I particularly liked the fact that after 4 years you completed your basic education. Unlike medicine, you didn’t have to spend years in a residency program. I was also fascinated with the emphasis on working with your hands and doing fine detail.”
In 1971 Rickert was the first American Indian to enter the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Most of her approximately 150 classmates were Caucasian males. There were only 6 women.
Rickert remembers that she and the other 5 female students experienced some sexist behavior from a few of the professors and male students. Some of the behavior was mean and cruel. “I didn’t take it personally,” she recalls, “I just thought they were ignorant and ignored them. It did bother some of the other women to a great degree. They didn’t drop out though.
“I’m the oldest of 7 children. I have 4 brothers and 2 sisters. I guess I was used to boys acting ridiculously at times, although my own siblings were never mean or cruel.
“I did really well at dental school. I especially enjoyed being able to do some of the actual treatments. It was demanding but fascinating.”
During dental school Rickert successfully balanced her studies with family life. Just before dental school, she and her husband had their daughter, Carole. “My family helped me immensely during Carole’s baby years. She was the first grandchild. My mom and dad and siblings were always ready to do anything I needed. The same was true of my aunts and uncles. Without their ready support, our lives would have been very difficult.”
“I always knew I wanted to be in private practice. I love Michigan and didn’t want to leave it, so I set up a practice with one of my dental classmates, Dr. Bruce Rosenblum, who is from Detroit. In dental school they didn’t talk about setting up a business. Luckily my friend’s father is a pharmacist. He and his network of family members and friends helped us.
“Bruce has remained my true friend and supporter since we were cubicle neighbors in 1971. We still call each other at any time for advice.”
In addition to private practice, Rickert was involved with 3 organizations that worked to get dental care for American Indians living in Detroit – the Grand Rapids Intertribal Council, the North American Center for Indians, and the Michigan Urban Indian Health Council, which set up dental clinics.
Rickert also served as the dentist for the Children’s Aid Society in Detroit, which cared for foster children of all backgrounds. Medicaid did not provide adequate payment for the dental care of these children, so Rickert and Rosenblum provided dental care in their clinic. Frequently, Rickert gave talks on Career Days that typically were aimed at encouraging young girls to enter careers in math and science.
In 1979, Rickert and her husband had a second child, a son, Thomas. During her maternity leave, Rickert pulled together the material that she had used for her Career Day talks and wrote Exploring Careers in Dentistry, which she aimed at both girls and boys.
In 1982, Rickert and her husband welcomed another son, Brandon, into their family.
For many years, Rickert and her husband had wanted to settle in the northern part of Michigan. In 1982, they moved with their daughter and two sons to Traverse City, Michigan, so they could be close to beautiful Lake Michigan. Rickert opened her current practice in nearby Interlochen.
Rickert says, “If you want a job where you are providing a great service for people and are never bored, then you should consider dentistry.” She hopes that her book Exploring Careers in Dentistry will be helpful to interested students.
A picture of Dr. Rickert's is on the cover of the September 2007 issue of Woman Dentist Journal. In that issue, Rickert is the focus of Kristen Wright's article entitled "Native American Roots".
You can find a interview of Dr. Rickert at pinkTooth.net