Folks at the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Skagit Valley College (SVC) have plenty to smile about these days.

After a decade of advocacy and planning, the tribe and SVC have formally partnered to launch the first Dental Therapy Education Program in Washington state.

The new dexwxayebus (pronounced dahf-hi-ya-buus) professional dental program will be co-located at the Swinomish Dental Clinic and SVC’s Mount Vernon campus when the fall term convenes. 

Dexwxayebus is a phrase in Lushootseed – the traditional language of Coast Salish tribes – meaning “Place of Smiles.”

“The program,” according to Marisa Pierce, Swinomish executive director of strategic marketing and communications, “aims to deliver smiles because smiles are strong indicators of personal confidence as well as physical and mental health.”

It addresses the on-going oral health workforce disparities among under-represented minorities, specifically the American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

The program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the United States Department of Education, Swinomish and SVC officials said in a joint release issued Aug. 19.

Dexwxayebus is the first education program of its kind in the lower 48 contiguous states to receive accreditation, said SVC President Dr. Tom Keegan.

“We’re very excited to receive accreditation and begin offering the program this fall,” Keegan said. “Graduates will help provide much needed high-quality dental care to tribal communities across the country.

“This has been a truly collaborative effort inspired by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and many others,” he added. “It has required vision, innovation, persistence, technical expertise and a commitment to serve others.”

Swinomish Tribal Senate Chair, Steve Edwards, was likewise grateful for the CODA accreditation.

“Swinomish and SVC staff have worked for years to develop this important training program and then to take the steps necessary for accreditation,” Edwards said.

Swinomish has taken a leading role nationally with its advocacy of dental therapy across Indian Country. The tribe’s use of dental therapy was featured in a major two-page article with photo layout in the news section of the New York Times several years ago.

“Dental therapists bring culturally appropriate oral health care to Native communities,” stressed Edwards. “There’s an unmet need for dental therapists, and now this training program will make dental therapy training available here in Washington, so students won’t have to move far from home to learn these valuable skills.”

The dexwxayebus program is comprised of a rigorous three-year curriculum and focuses on student-centered teaching and learning, with an emphasis on equitable student outcomes.

The program was developed through the collaboration of numerous partners at Swinomish, SVC and in the community at large. The list is lengthy and includes the Swinomish Tribal Senate, departmental leadership and community members; SVC’s supporting departments; global dental therapy advocates; the Washington Dental Therapy Education Advisory Committee; the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board; the Arcora Foundation; Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies; the Kellogg Foundation; and the National Indian Health Board.

“We could not have more supportive partners,” said Rachael Hogan, DDS, director of the Swinomish Dental Clinic, and the program chairperson. “We are grateful to each of them for their continued persistence, guidance and optimism for our vision of bringing holistic, patient-centered, culturally responsive and clinically excellent oral health care to under-served and under-represented communities.”

Accreditation by CODA of the dexwxayebus program was the result of long-range planning, development and implementation between Swinomish and SVC, leadership said.

The mission of the program, Edwards and Keegan noted, is to grow primary oral health providers who will enhance dental teams through education, research, patient care and community service.

The bottom line, though, is to produce smiles to last a lifetime.