Ethel Connelly, D.V.M., ’89
Dr. Ethel Connelly, the first Native American woman to graduate with a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Colorado State University, now owns Grass Winds Veterinary Clinic on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. She reflects on her journey through veterinary school and the joys and challenges of managing her practice now.
From the beginning
“I grew up on a cattle ranch on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana. Growing up was different for me from how many people grow up. We did not have running water until I was 7 and did not have a phone until four years after that. And every summer day was spent, sun up to to sun down, outside working in some capacity, usually more fun than work. We had the constant fear of disease wiping out our livelihood. One of these diseases is the reason I went into veterinary medicine. We had brucellosis in our cattle, a terrible disease, often decimating whole herds and devastating family ranches. I remember being fascinated by the work the federal vets had to do. I would watch the federal veterinarians draw blood from the jugular veins and, later, the tail veins on the cattle in our herd. They even let me do the “card test,” a way to check for brucellosis, and I thought that was pretty cool. I saw being a veterinarian as something I could do in my community and that would give back.
“In high school in Browning, Montana, I took all the math and science I could to prepare for veterinary admission. At Montana State University, I dove into pre-veterinary activities and pre-requisite courses. One of the courses nearly broke me: Organic Chemistry. This second year class made me doubt myself and my dream of veterinary school. I spent the third quarter of that year feeling like I did not know what to do and that I was not living up to my personal standards. I pushed through those doubts and returned to my original goal after taking Biochemistry in the summer and working with Dr. Dave Young in the MAP program.”
“I first met Dr. Connelly after she graduated from Browning High School. When she came to Montana State University, she helped launch a summer program for Indian high school students. The summer program still continues today, across 38 consecutive summers. She was a very hard worker and dedicated to helping other students.” –Dr. David Young, mentor
“I went to Colorado State University as a Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) student. My first year of veterinary school was challenging, especially in anatomy class. I am a terrible speller and dropped almost a whole letter grade on exams just from misspellings. I knew I had to dive in; this was the training I needed to achieve my life long dream of being a Veterinarian. I was far from home, in a stressful environment, and my only motivator had to be myself. To top off the competitive nature of vet school, I had issues with financial aid for the entirety of the first semester and was in the office weekly.
“It was also tough being away from home. But over the four years, I had so much support from classmates and faculty. Dr. Shidler, an equine field veterinarian, was a huge asset to my education. He taught us, not just ‘book’ lessons, but how things would be in the real world of veterinary medicine; that not every situation will be textbook and having the ability to think outside the box was a necessity.
“After researching previous graduation records, I believe I am the first Native American woman to graduate from the CSU veterinary school. At my graduation, my grandmother asked me to wear the traditional buckskin dress that my oldest sister, Charlene, had worn when she had graduated from Montana Tech to my own graduation ceremony. I asked the administration at the time if I could wear it and they recommended against it. I was not someone who made waves, but I decided that holding up my grandmother’s request was more important. I wore the dress under my graduation gown and took the gown off when I went on stage to receive my diploma. I remember Dr. Voss, the dean at the time, saying something to me, but I don’t remember what he said. I was too nervous in the moment! Later friends told me that I received a standing ovation.”
“Dr. Connelly has broken many barriers in her career. She has had immense bravery and tenacity, as evidenced by when she wore her native dress at graduation or when she opened the first Indian-owned veterinary practice in the state of Montana.” – Dr. David Young, mentor
Coming home to serve
“I always knew I would be returning to Montana after graduation. I first went to work in Bozeman for Dr. Jerry Robertson, handling most of the small animal cases in the mixed animal practice. But my heart was back on the Blackfeet Reservation. In 1993, I came home and opened Grass Winds Veterinary Clinic on the Blackfeet Reservation. We created the clinic at the site of the old Cowboy’s Inn Bar, starting with just a small barn in the back. Since it opened, the clinic has always been a family business. My mom was my first receptionist. My brother worked as a replacement receptionist when my Mom became too ill to work. My sister is my current office manager. Along the way, my daughter, niece, nephews, and cousins have worked at the clinic.”
Scope of practice
“There is no typical day at the clinic, but there is never a lack of excitement. I do the best I can for each patient that comes through my door. A variety of cases come in everyday ranging from routine vaccinations to orthopedic surgeries.
“Now, calving season is just starting, which means assisting tough deliveries and treating scouring calves. The spring brings bull fertility testing and in the fall I do cattle pregnancy checking, herd health and health certificates for calves being sold. Year round, I sterilize horses, dogs and cats, write international health certificates for rodeos in Canada and vaccinate animals. In the past, we have done vaccination clinics, moving from community to community, on the reservation, to provide the opportunity to vaccinate animals at a minimal cost and ensure community health by vaccinating for Rabies for free. Recently, I have been working with the Blackfeet Tribe and their 650 buffalo. Everyday is a new adventure. I always tell people I will see anything except snakes. I simply do not like snakes!”
Building the next generation
“My daughter is a sophomore at Yale University, and she wants to pursue veterinary medicine. She was hauled around with me on calls since she was little and has seen the ups and downs of this kind of work. She spent years of her life growing up in the clinic. I tell her how stressful veterinary school can be. My advice to her and anyone looking to go to vet school is: Buckle down, trust yourself, and stick with it, the challenge is worth the stress. My daughter wants to follow in my footsteps and attend Colorado State University, and I could not be more proud.”