As a Lakota woman who grew up on my home reservation, the data in the Health of Women and Children Report about my people are heartbreaking to see — but completely consistent with my personal experience. Nearly every Native person has a loved one, friend or community member who has gone missing, been murdered, been incarcerated or lost a child. These grave disparities are foundational and rooted in history. Native people face a lack of access to food, housing, education and health services. This “lack of” is systemic, tied to loss of land, loss of loved ones and loss of family and community structure.
This profound and historic sense of loss, exacerbated anew by the COVID-19 pandemic, casts shadows on our overall health that are compounded by socioeconomic factors, lack of health resources and geographic barriers. While other populations in the United States may take basics like pap smears, prenatal care and breastfeeding support for granted, new and expecting mothers in tribal communities often must travel hours to receive many routine services and to deliver their babies.
The data on Native populations in reports like this one from America’s Health Rankings help tell our story and underscore the need for investment in practices and policies that can make progress towards a healthy, prosperous future for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — a prospect that many of their ancestors and community members did not have.
This motivates my work at the American Indian College Fund, where we provide scholarships to Native students in an effort to diversify and strengthen the health profession, particularly in the rural areas where many tribal communities are located. We aim to give students the financial and cultural tools they need to attend and navigate college, thrive after graduation and achieve social and economic mobility. For Native students, mobility often does and should go beyond the ability to acquire basic necessities, but also to share resources with their communities and give access to restorative cultural practices that promote overall well-being and cultural identity for adolescents, mothers and whole extended families.
I strongly believe that our communities’ traditional knowledge holds power to reclaim the sense of wellness that we once had. However, we need the economic resources and stability to access these traditional teachings and relationships, complemented by routine and preventive health services, particularly for women and children. I hope that advocates and leaders across the country will take note of this report’s findings and use them to guide investments that can truly support my people.