Earlier this year, UMD student Alexandera Houchin won the grueling, 2,745-mile Tour Divide bike race from Canada to Mexico. But it was during the 2017 race that she won a much more significant prize, even though she had to drop out of the cycling competition.
Raised by an American Indian mother who had been adopted by a white family in Wisconsin, Houchin grew up knowing she was Ojibwe but virtually nothing about the culture. That changed when she studied Native American history and U.S. government policies and realized that the government had aimed to erase Indian culture through assimilation.
Houchin vowed not to allow her identity to be diluted. She began college at the University of Arizona, but transferred to UMD after corresponding with the American Indian Learning Resource Center there. And with the confidence that comes from having worked as a bike messenger and bike mechanic, as well as bike sandwich delivery gal, she took on the Tour Divide. During the 2017 race, Houchin and a dental student rode together, and she soon realized that she, too, could become a dentist.
A double major in American Indian studies and chemistry, Houchin points out that there are only 400 Native American dentists in the country. Through her chosen career, she will have the chance to reduce health disparities that adversely affect American Indians. Dentistry is a pivotal area because traditional Indian diets have changed radically over the last century, and sugar-laded commodity food is now a staple on reservations.
“I need to understand the history of our people,” Houchin says. “If I’m going to treat what’s happening now, I need to understand the past.”