In 1889, the medical school at Northwestern University marked a historically important year when its first Native American student, Carlos Montezuma, graduated.
Given the many challenges he faced early in his life, this proved to be quite an achievement. Originally named Wassaja, Dr. Montezuma was born a Yavapai Indian in central Arizona in 1865. At age five, he was kidnapped by a neighboring tribe and sold for $30 to an Italian-born photographer. Carlo Gentile bought his freedom, gave him a new name, taught him English and enrolled him in school.
Montezuma received a bachelor’s of science in chemistry from the University of Illinois before completing medical school. Following graduation, he began working as a physician for the Bureau of Indians at many reservations across the country. He eventually returned to Chicago to open a private practice.
Throughout his career, Dr. Montezuma was an advocate for Native American rights, and became the poster child of a Native American assimilated into the “white man’s” culture, something he considered very important for his people. He began a group called the Society of American Indians, which was controlled by indigenous leaders. He also spent much of his career working to eliminate the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he thought had a biased and unfair agenda. He gave influential speeches and wrote a newsletter called Wassaja on the cause.
Montezuma spent much of his later life reconnecting with his Native American heritage. In 1922, he developed tuberculosis and died a year later at the Yavapai’s Fort McDonald Reservation in Arizona. He was buried in the tribal cemetery.