FARGO — Ciciley Littlewolf joined the National Guard on a dare.
“Women can’t be in the military,” she remembered her high school classmate teasing. The next day she signed up for the Guard. Her mother had to approve the paperwork since she was only 17.
“It was one of the silliest, best decisions I ever made,” she said. “I remember telling him, well, I’m going to do more than you, and I’m going to outrank you.”
Now, two decades later, she did it.
She initially scored high enough on her military entrance exam to become a medic and went to Kosovo on her first deployment. Since then, she’s become a first lieutenant, earned two bachelor’s degrees and graduated from the University of North Dakota’s medical school — making her the first female Native American doctor in the North Dakota National Guard.
She’s resilient — something she said she learned from a young age, watching her mom raise six kids on her own and then losing her two older brothers later on in life. And she’s kept her eye on the goal of wanting to pave a path for her people to follow, just like her ancestor Chief Little Wolf — who led the Northern Cheyenne tribe out of Indian Territory in now-Oklahoma and back to their homeland in Montana 140 years ago.
“I have never felt like giving up. I have never felt like quitting,” she said. “When people felt weak around me, I tried to give them the strength to move forward.”
Conquering the test
On Sept. 18, 2014, Ciciley drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles to take the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT.
Every other location in California was booked months in advance, except this one, seven hours away from the apartment she and her husband, Joe Williams, moved into just three months earlier, so he could attend the Academy of Art University.
It was a hot California day. Ciciley doesn’t like the heat. That’s why years earlier she’d waited until winter to go to military basic training. You can always add clothes to get warmer, but you can’t escape the heat, she said.
Her first MCAT score wasn’t competitive enough to get into school, so this was her second time taking the exam. She studied for a year, waking up each morning at 7 a.m., sifting through MCAT study books and stacks of note cards, and sipping coffee out of a Pendleton mug.
When she arrived at the Prometric Testing Center, the air conditioning was broken. The administrators said the students could sign up for a future date, but everyone stayed put. Two large industrial fans blew hot air throughout the four-hour exam.
A month later, Ciciley got the results. She passed. She was accepted to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences for the 2015 school year, and she and her husband moved to Grand Forks. Now, four years later, she’s one of the 0.56% of medical doctors in the country who are Native American. This month, Ciciley, now 37, started her medical residency program at Sanford Health in Fargo.
“I always tell people, statistically, I shouldn’t be a doctor,” she said. “Statistically, I should not have even gotten into medical school because I am no different than the people who live on a reservation.”
Life-altering phone calls
Ciciley grew up in a three-bedroom, yellow house bookmarked between two sets of rolling hills on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in eastern Montana. The nearest neighbor was a half mile away.
The house was damaged. It had broken windows and torn screens. To take a bath, Ciciley would heat up water in big pots on the stovetop and haul it to the tub. She grew up with four older siblings and one younger. Her mom, Esther Littlewolf, became single when Ciciley was young, about 4 years old.
They left the reservation when Ciciley was 12 years old and moved to a two-bedroom trailer in Vermillion, S.D., so her mom could get her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Dakota — she was the first in the family tree to do so.
When Ciceley graduated from high school, she enlisted in the military, then followed in her mom’s footsteps and enrolled at USD.
She gets where she wants to go, her mom said. “I see her do that all the time, setting a goal and figuring out the steps that need to be taken to reach that goal. And then there she goes.”
In February 2003, Ciciley’s phone rang in the middle of the night.
Her little sister called, and Ciciley could barely understand what she was saying through the sobs. Her oldest brother, Anthony Wolfname Jr., had been stabbed in the heart and died from the wound. When then 21-year-old Ciciley returned home to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, yellow caution tape surrounded the bloodied footprints on the white snow where her brother had tried to run for help.
Then three years later, Ciciley’s phone rang again.
Her second oldest brother, Shawn Wolfname, was beaten to death when he got in a fight over a bottle of whiskey with two men, who were later convicted. That second call was the same, Ciciley said. It was the middle of the night, and her little sister could hardly muster the words.
It hasn’t gotten easier to not have them around, Ciciley said. “All these milestones ... their presence has always been missed.”
'I don’t ever want to forget'
Ciciley graduated from USD with a degree in criminal justice, but she soon went back to get her medical school prerequisites when she realized she couldn’t shake the itch for medicine. Her professor, Gerald Yutrzenka, said she was determined, and once she decided she wanted to be a doctor, that’s exactly what she did.
In between her first and second years of medical school, she went to the northernmost state of India, called Himachal Pradesh, where she helped set up mobile medical clinics. Her group slept in yellow tents at the base of the Himalayan mountain range.
There was one little boy who walked four miles with his older sister to get to the clinic. He cried with everyone who would try to help him, but with Ciciley, he was calm. “I was the only one who looked similar to him,” she said.
The trip, while challenging, was refreshing, she said. “I try to do things that keep me grounded because I don’t ever want to forget where I came from.”
Ciciley said she’s a good chameleon, straddling two worlds on and off the reservation.
Off the reservation, she still maintains her spirituality with her Creator, named Maheo. And in her house, she’s hung Indigenous art on the walls. Even so, returning home and hearing others speaking the Northern Cheyenne language makes her feel “culturally starved,” she said.
But her tribe is proud of her. When she finished medical school in May — as one of four Native Americans in a class of 73 — the vice president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Winfield Russell, came to her graduation.
“This is the highest accomplishment that one of our people can make,” he said. “I want her to be recognized.”