Tribal communities like mine, the Spirit Lake Dakota reservation in North Dakota, have always been communal in nature. Caring for the health of individuals and the community is ingrained, but historical traumas have led to a range of public health challenges to this day.
In my career serving American Indian peoples as a health leader and educator, I have seen firsthand the many obstacles facing my community, from endemic poverty and mistrust of educational institutions to widespread food insecurity and a sense of inevitability around adult-onset diabetes. The America’s Health Rankings Health Disparities Report reaffirms what leaders in tribal and other marginalized communities already know: health challenges and wide disparities exist and have persisted over time.
Overcoming these persistent disparities is not easy and there are no quick solutions. Experiencing food insecurity, for example, leaves a deep, long-lasting impression. Even in my own life, after years of higher education and professional experience, there is still a little girl in me that remembers being hungry. I see how scars like these profoundly shape the students and community I work with at Cankdeska Cikana Community College. They face recurrent and lasting structural challenges, like endemic poverty and lack of access to healthy foods, which shape their day-to-day lives and overall health. I feel a deep sense of urgency to help address these disparities and the underlying determinants of health.
Despite these persistent challenges, I am hopeful that we can make a difference. As the America’s Health Rankings report shows, there is a strong connection between education and better health. If we can help break the cycle of generational health challenges through the education we provide at Cankdeska Cikana Community College, then my work comes full circle.
I also believe that with clear, objective data, tribal leaders can help bridge knowledge gaps and improve understanding of health and wellness for the people in their community. Leaders can use this information to help them focus their efforts and catalyze meaningful change.
The challenges facing tribal communities are deep, complex and layered. But by articulating the impact of disparities in health outcomes and what contributes to them in an accessible and holistic manner, we can lean on our communal strengths to improve public health.