Whoever contrived the jump-rope rhyme "doctor, lawyer, Indian chief" probably didn't picture all three as Native Americans.

But more and more Native Americans are seeing themselves that way.And Rodney Cuny, who's just weeks away from graduating from the University of Utah medical school, is one.

Cuny, a member of the Sioux tribe, is a man of imposing size but disarming style. Even his casual conversation has the warmth and understated tone of a good bedside manner. His comments are often full of gentle, self-effacing irony.

"I wish I could tell you I've wanted to be a doctor since I was a little kid," he says through a smile, "but the truth is I began to get interested in medicine just eight years ago."

One reason he "caught the bug," so to speak, was because of the example of a fine, Native American physician named Dennis Little who Cuny greatly admired. Another was the support of his wife Juanita. And third, there was that push to succeed that Cuny has felt since boyhood. It drove him to be a standout basketball player in Arizona, now it has driven him into one of life's most trying careers.

After graduation, Cuny will return to South Dakota to work for the Indian Health Services. His specialty - obstetrics and gynecology - is badly needed there.

"I'd like to improve the social situation on the reservation," he says, "and reach some of the young people who really want to improve things in the tribe."

And being a Native American, he explains, should work for him.

"When I worked with the Indian Health Services before, I found people really confided in me," he says. "There's such a turnover in doctors that patients don't have time to build a relationship with a physician."

A question that seems to come up often for Cuny is the old bugaboo about modern medicine and the role of the tribal medicine man. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, but Cuny walks it well.

"I'm inclined to agree that there is a place for traditional medicine, especially in areas such as grieving," he explains. "A lot of people still believe in the power of the medicine man, and I think that gives him a place in the modern world."

Medical school, of course, has been a pressure cooker of stress for Cuny. But because of his race, he's had some added concerns.

"I don't know if it's self-imposed pressure or not," he says, "but I have felt a real need to succeed. But then that's fine. I must say I've always expected success. And I enjoy the pressure in a way. It's part of a modern medicine, and I can't imagine myself doing anything else."