Many modern day Native Americans in the U.S. have multiple roots, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. 

That lived experience often leaves them looking for a way to strengthen or even rebuild a connection with that Indigenous lineage in an authentic way, part of what Kyle Lakatos, MD, MPP, MSc, calls a “reconnection journey.” 

The recent UC San Francisco graduate is one of those people himself, both half Jewish and a descendant of the Pawnee and Cheyenne nations. 

“We have people who come from all different walks of life in the Bay Area,” he said. “In the Indigenous community, there are people who have come here by choice, by force, people who live on reservations or people who have no connections to their ancestral roots. My family was disconnected from my grandfather. I never met him. That’s where my Native American heritage is.” 

It’s the same story for Adria Bowles, MD. 

The descendant of Washington state’s Colville Tribe was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s half white, connected to her Native American lineage on her mother’s side – a lived experience she called “an interesting dynamic.” 

“I try really hard to be careful about how I navigate that and don’t overstate what my experience is,” Bowles said. “I did not and have never lived on a reservation, which is a very different experience. There are a lot of different ways being Native can look in the U.S. Native Americans in the U.S. did survive a very successful genocide. That’s why there’s not a ton of ‘full blooded’ Native American people. It doesn’t even occur to [other Americans] until you talk about it.” 

Bowles’ Indigenous heritage is through her biological grandfather. 

Lakatos and Bowles joined Brooke Warren, MD, and Jemzi Ortiz, MS – all four Native American students from UCSF’s professional schools – at a traditional blanket ceremony celebrating their graduations this month. 

Hosted by the UCSF Native American Health Alliance (NAHA) and UCSF Association of Native American Medical Students (ANAMS), the ceremony is a widely practiced tradition among different tribes and communities to acknowledge or celebrate milestones achieved by members of the community who are moving on or advancing to new journeys in their lives. 

“It’s such a beautiful celebration of us existing,” said Tasce Bongiovonni, MD, MPP, MHS, assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Surgery and NAHA co-chair. “This is so very, very important. For so long, we haven’t been seen. The U.S. government tried to get rid of Native people. Native people have been forcibly removed from their homelands. I think that these students deserve to be celebrated for who they are.” 

Native people have been forcibly removed from their homelands. I think that these students deserve to be celebrated for who they are.”

Tasce Bongiovonni, MD, MPP, MHS

The ceremony was held at the Faculty-Alumni House at the Parnassus Heights campus. 

While ANAMS is limited to participation from students, NAHA has supported faculty, staff and learners at UCSF for more than a decade. A recent student-led rekindling has helped grow NAHA’s presence on campus. “A very motivated group came together and wanted to build some momentum around Native American identity at the University,” said Lakatos, who came to UCSF in 2019 before the first blanket ceremony was held in 2022. 

The NAHA students have bonded over their Native American connections through food, gardening and workshops, among other activities. They’ve also supported each other’s academic projects, made a point to connect with first-year medical students of Native identity and helped plan the NABARI Youth Decolonization Camp, a free week-long summer camp experience for high school-aged Bay Area Native and Indigenous youth in which campers explore concepts of social justice and their own heritage in a way that focuses on youth resilience and empowerment. 

“There’s so much internal motivation to do this work and give back to this community,” Lakatos said. “A lot of other students have been propelled by similar initiatives. There’s something internally calling us to do so in a way.” 

The camp is a partnership between UCSF and the Native American Health Center

That identity question is one modern day Native American descendants struggle with, young and old – emphasizing its important place in Indigenous youth education. 

“There’s a long history of needing to prove that you’re Native enough,” Bowles said. “It’s hard because this is a part of who I am. I talk to my younger sister about it pretty regularly. It’s an experience of trying to navigate on what is Native enough while other people tell you what is Native enough.” 

The Bay Area is such a beautiful example of this, bringing together Indigenous folks from all walks of life. It’s truly a kaleidoscopic community.”

Kyle Lakatos, MD, MPP, MSc

Some, like Lakatos, have been able to find that unique identity through location. 

“Every tribe is different and has different cultural practices and language,” he said. “For me, it’s been through the lens of being urban Indigenous. The Bay Area is such a beautiful example of this, bringing together Indigenous folks from all walks of life. It’s truly a kaleidoscopic community.” 

Lakatos’ next stop is Stanford University as a resident in anesthesia. 

Bowles will continue her education at UCSF, having just matched in pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital at Mission Bay. “I always wish there were more hours in the day to do more,” she said. “I won’t ever feel like I know enough or have done enough. I see the blanket ceremony as a step on a journey as to how I can continue this experience as a resident.” 

Bongiovanni, herself a member of the Navajo Nation, is hoping to continue NAHA’s growth with another wave of students already in line to participate in next year’s blanket ceremony. 

“Because there are so few of us, it can be really hard to find and build community,” she said. “It’s a work in progress. But we can help make their UCSF experience special.” 

students holding their blankets from ceremony
Malinda Walker (left), Adria Bowles, MD, Jemzi Ortiz, MS, Kyle Lakatos, MD, MPP, MSc, Brooke Warren, MD, and Tasce Bongiovanni, MD, MPP, are seen at the UCSF Native Student Graduation and Blanket Ceremony at Parnassus Heights on Monday, May. 13, 2024, in San Francisco, CA.