history of Arizona's physicians is rich in mystery,
controversy, innovation and pride. Since the
settlers first inhabited the territory, physicians
have been a part of Arizona's legacy. They helped
shape the culture of this Great State and set
the standard for the quality of care delivered
to its citizens. The Physicians of Interest
page on this website highlights the historical
work of Arizona's physicians and the roles they
played while shaping the State's future. The
biography of a new physician will be added each
month and in time, the page will represent a
patchwork of the names and faces that brought
medicine in Arizona to life.
Dr. Carlos Montezuma
Dr. Carlos Montezuma, born in central Arizona around 1866, was the first Yavappai and of the first Native Americans to earn a medical degree. Montezuma’s birth name was Wassaja (pronounced wass-jah), a word that has been translated to mean, “signaling or beckoning”. In 1871, this young boy was captured in the Superstition Mountains by Pima Indians and sold to photographer, Carlos Gentile who summarily changed Wassaja’s name to Carlos Montezuma.
The two resided in both Chicago and New York for several years until Gentile lost all of his belongings in a fire and had to send Montezuma away. He was eventually handed over to a Baptist minister in Urbana, Illinois, where he continued his studies and was tutored for entrance into the state university. After acceptance, Montezuma excelled in chemistry at the University of Illinois and graduated in 1884. He received his doctorate of medicine from the Chicago Medical College, a branch of Northwestern University, in 1889 and obtained his license to practice that same year.
Dr. Montezuma’s first venture in private practice proved to be unsuccessful. He closed up shop and soon found work as a physician with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Indian Service where he traveled to reservations and provided services to Native Americans at Fort Stevenson Indian School in North Dakota, Western Shoshone Agency in Nevada, Colville Agency in Washington, and finally the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Here, he became acquainted with Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School and staunch assimilationist. This relationship, along with his negative experiences working on various reservations, helped form his early ideas of Indian policy.
By 1896 Dr. Montezuma left Pratt to return to Chicago and start another private practice. He successfully practiced medicine and began publicly attacking the government for the conditions that were imposed upon Native Americans.
Montezuma became an outspoken opponent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); he was twice offered the post of commissioner of Indian affairs but refused. Instead, he helped found the Society of American Indians in 1911, the first Indian rights organization created by and for Indians. In 1916 he started a monthly magazine titled Wassaja that he used as a platform to spread his views of the BIA and Native American education, water rights and citizenship.
At the turn of the century, Dr. Montezuma traveled as team doctor with the notorious Carlisle football team to Arizona. While in Arizona, Montezuma was able to contact long-lost relatives he had not seen since his abduction. By this time, the Yavapai were settled at Fort McDowell reservation. Montezuma’s hatred for reservations was softened once he saw how connected his people were to their ancestral land and understood that they considered it home. He led the resistance to Yavapai removal from Fort McDowell to the Salt River reservation from 1910 until his death.
Dr. Montezuma became very ill in 1922 and decided to permanently return to the land of his people. He died on January 31, 1923 of tuberculosis and is buried at the Fort McDowell Indian cemetery.
Dr. Montezuma was a man that was able to adjust to his circumstances while remembering his traditions. A man raised by conflict and surrounded in controversy. He dedicated himself to the betterment of his people as a writer, a speaker and as a physician.