OLD TOWN, Maine — After spending most of his adult life and dental career in Ohio, Ned Robertson said he knew he was back home in Maine during a recent drive up Stillwater Avenue.
Robertson, who grew up in the Pine Tree State, had stopped his car to let a group of school children cross the road.
“The older of the kids — who I’m gonna guess is in about sixth grade — gets into the intersection, looks over and waves ‘thank you,’” he said. “Then the next kid looks over and waves ‘thank you.’ Then the younger two kids who were following them. Every one of them — all four of them — these kids looked over and waved ‘thank you’ to me.
“That’s when I knew I was home. It was the best feeling. You don’t see that so much elsewhere,” said Robertson, who recently was hired as dentist for the Penobscot Indian Nation’s health center.
“They’d been through a series of dentists,” Robertson said while giving a tour of the tribe’s dental facility.
“As I understand, they’d been looking for a very, very long time for somebody who would make a longer-term commitment,” said Robertson, 62, an avid hiker, bicyclist and canoer. “I’ve got a good 10 years — if not 15 — still to practice.”
For Robertson, the position with the Penobscots meant a return to Maine, where he grew up. He began serving the tribe in late August, working two two-week stints while waiting for his private practice in Beachwood, Ohio, to sell. It sold more quickly than he thought it would and by Nov. 5 he was able to join the staff on Indian Island full time.
Born in Rumford, Robertson spent his early childhood in the French Canadian logging camps in the Rockwood area, north of Moosehead Lake. His father was an engineer for Great Northern Paper.
“He was in charge of individual logging operations. He ran the camp store, he was the accountant, he was the engineer. My older brother told me he was ‘The Man,’” Robertson said with a chuckle.
“They build us a camp that was hauled from place to place to the areas they were logging out of,” he said. “So we were all over the place, from the St. John River to the Canadian border.”
Robertson’s family later moved to Bethel, where he graduated from Gould Academy in 1968 before moving to Ohio, where he studied dentistry.
Dentistry wasn’t a profession he planned on getting into, he said. His first experience in a dentist’s chair, when he was 8 years old and his dentist accidentally struck his palate with a drill which he then bit down on, proved so traumatic that he didn’t go back again until he was 25 and in graduate school, he said.
“I had pretty much every tooth in my head worked on,” he said. “I was fascinated by what the [dental] students were doing. They were handing me mirrors so I could see what they were doing. I love working with my hands so I decided to become a dentist.”
In addition to practicing dentistry, Robertson also has served as a teacher, professor and clinical instructor.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It was almost an accident,” Robertson said of being hired by the Penobscots.
Robertson said that he worked as a dentist on the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., in 1999-2000 — a stint he thought would last a couple of months but ended up lasting nearly a year. After that, he continued to receive notices of about openings at other Indian facilities.
“They were interesting but I never thought I would ever leave Ohio or leave my private practice. However, when I saw an opening for the Penobscot Indian Nation a few months back I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ There was just some force almost drawing me here,” he said.
“I thought, well, I’ve lived in Rockwood. That was originally a Penobscot Indian village. Our next door neighbor was Oliver Bernard, who was a full-blooded Penobscot Indian who was best friends with my family, best friends with my dad, and as they say, one thing led to another.
“Every barrier that might have been in my life just kind of disappeared and here I am. Yeah, I’m here to stay. There was just an irresistible draw back to this state, back to the place of my childhood,” he said.
“I’ve already been up to Moosehead Lake four or five times just in the short time that I’ve been here. I’ve been to Bethel once, too. That’s where I had Thanksgiving dinner with my best friend,” he said.
Among the innovations that Robertson is working to bring to Indian Island are digital X-rays, which he said means 75 percent less radiation exposure for patients — and online dental records.
When the tribal dentist position opened up earlier this year, the Penobscots were hoping to find a dentist who would stick around for more than a year or two, health center Director Jill MacDougall said last week.
MacDougall said that after having interviewed dozens of applicants for the full-time post, she and dental clinic employee Donna Harris knew they’d found their next dentist a few minutes into their first phone conversation with Robertson.
“We both had smiles on our faces,” MacDougall said. “We’re very happy to have someone with so much experience,” she said. She said that Robertson is able to perform several procedures, including surgery, in-house that the tribe had to outsource with less experienced dentists, some of whom were fresh out of school. That, she said, will save the tribe money.
“We operate on a very, very small budget,” she said of the health center, which also houses a physicians office, a pharmacy, a lab and counseling and nutritional services. Services provided at the center are funded by the Indian Health Center, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The center is open to any member of a federally recognized American Indian tribe, whether they live in Maine or beyond.