Poverty is a noose that strangles humility and breeds disrespect for God and man. — Sioux saying
Over the last century, we have poured tons of money into researching diseases and have managed to improve our odds against some of them. Mortality rates are down, and life expectancy has risen — except if you are Native American. Recent research has found that the death rate among Native Americans is actually on the rise.1
A report by the Washington State Department of Health found that, while the rates of death from cancer, heart disease, and infant mortality have all been on the decline for the majority of U.S. residents for some time, the same does not hold true for the Native American population. As recently as 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, Native American men had the highest death rate of any ethnic group. While other populations’ mortality had improved over the 15 years prior, the rates for Native American men had stagnated. White men have an average life expectancy of 77 years, yet the Native American man’s average is just 71 — the lowest of any man in America.
And other groups of Native Americans actually fared even worse. Over the same 15-year period from 1991 to 2006, Native American women’s death rates rose a whopping 20 percent. Comparatively, the death rate in the same time period for the general population dropped by 17 percent. As for infant mortality, which has steadily declined in the United States for decades, a rise occurred for Native American children. The infant mortality rate in 2007 for Native Americans was 9.2 in 1,000 live births and climbing, compared to non-Hispanic white babies in the U.S., whose rate was 5.6.2
These discrepancies are not isolated to one small band of Native American tribes in a particular state. Native Americans all over the United States are suffering the same problems. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the Federal government’s Indian Health Service improved healthcare for many Native Americans, lowering their mortality rates greatly. But since then, a backslide has begun, and those health gains have been reversed. Why? The U.S. government is supposed to provide healthcare in a program similar to Medicaid to Native Americans. But they are not a powerful enough lobby to obtain the funding that is truly needed. A Civil Rights Commission report from 2004 showed that Medicaid recipients and even federal inmates receive more of our government healthcare dollars.3
Even with the money generated from tribal casinos, many Native Americans live far below the poverty line. Not many casinos turn a profit, and many tribes don’t have a casino. There are few options for income around most reservations, particularly those in rural settings, and the unemployment rate for Native Americans hovers around 50 percent. Food and other necessities compete daily against medical needs for what little money the people have.
Add to that the food Native Americans have traditionally been provided with on government assistance programs, and you can guess how high the disease rate is. Food stamps pay for a lot of inexpensive, processed, empty calories, but very little in the way of pricier fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein. Needless to say, obesity is rampant and diabetes rates are through the roof. In addition, alcohol is a major killer. Almost 12 percent of deaths among Native Americans and Alaska Natives are alcohol-related — more than three times the percentage in the general population.4 Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are five times more likely than other ethnicities in the United States to die of alcohol-related causes. And what makes it even worse is that it’s not just a question of willpower. Native Americans are genetically predisposed to alcoholism because of differences in the way they metabolize alcohol.5
It’s truly a shame that the government doesn’t do the right thing and help out its residents who need it the most. Without an expensive lobbying firm on Capitol Hill, Native Americans may just have to advocate for themselves. Start exercising and learn more about nutrition so even when money is tight, better food choices can be made. Make this into a new lifestyle and pass that knowledge down to the children along with cultural heritage and traditions. With this healthier life will come less disease and less need to pay for medical care…and in the long run, lower mortality rates for all Native Americans.
1 Ho, Vanessa. “Native American death rates soar as most people are living longer.” Good Thinking 4 All Our Relations. 19 December 2010. Accessed 20 February 2012. <http://4allourrelations.org/?p=2062>.
2 “Infant Mortality and American Indians/Alaska Natives.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. 22 July 2011. Accessed 21 February 2012. <http://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/templates/content.aspx?ID=3038>.
3 “Broken Promises: Evaluating the Native American Health Care System.” U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. September 2004. Accessed 21 February 2012. <http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/nahealth/nabroken.pdf>.
4 Associated Press. “1 in 10 Native American deaths alcohol related.” 29 Aug 2008. MSNBC. (Accessed 22 Feb 2012.) <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26439767/ns/health-addictions/t/native-american-deaths-alcohol-related/#.T0WEz4emi5J>
5 Cindy L. Ehlers. “Variations in Adh and Aldh in Southwest California Indians.” Alcohol Research & Health Vol. 30, No. 1, 2007 14-17. <http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh301/14-17.pdf>