Sage Memorial Hospital, in the Navajo Nation town of Ganado, has been a pioneering medical facility for nearly a century. It’s a place that made history, too — 90 years ago, it became the first accredited nursing school in the United States for American Indian women.
The hospital was the brainchild of Dr. Clarence Salsbury, who came to Ganado’s mission in the 1920s. Finding the mission’s small medical facility inadequate, he began raising money for a larger hospital. Opened in 1930, Sage Memorial, named after New York philanthropist Olivia Sage, featured 75 beds, a surgical unit, an X-ray department and other modern facilities.
Not long after it opened, the hospital launched its landmark nursing school for tribal women. At the time, many white people didn’t believe that Indigenous women would be able to complete a nursing program, but Salsbury felt differently. Years later, in the August 1948 issue of Arizona Highways, he touted the “high order of native intelligence, courage and adaptability” that had helped Arizona’s tribes survive and grow.
Salsbury’s faith and effort were justified when Adele Slivers and Ruth Henderson graduated as the first Diné nurses on November 29, 1933. Both women passed their exams before the Arizona State Board of Nurse Examiners and became registered nurses. Many more followed, and according to the Arizona Highways story, by 1948, the school had taught students from 49 tribes. “I say without the least hesitation that the Indian nurses we have graduated at Ganado are not only equal but far better than the average nurse turned out at our large city hospitals,” Salsbury said.
Many graduates of the Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, including Slivers, served in the military during World War II, and the school continued to educate tribal members and other minorities until 1951. By then, more opportunities were available elsewhere for minority nursing students, and nursing education was shifting to colleges and universities, rather than hospitals.
In 2009, the nursing school was named a National Historic Landmark. Sage Memorial Hospital, meanwhile, continues to lead the way for tribal communities: This past December, it was one of the first hospitals to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for front-line workers. The facility, now with 25 beds and operated by the Navajo Health Foundation, serves about 23,000 people in the Ganado area.
Sage Memorial Hospital is located in Ganado. For more information, call 928-755-4500 or visit sagememorial.com