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We need large and structural change to ensure the future of American Indian nations

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

Today's guest blogger in our COVID-19 and equity series is Michael Bird, MPH, MSW, who became the first American Indian and first social worker to serve as APHA president in 2001. He is a member of APHA’s American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Caucus and chair of the Caucus Collaborative. In 2018, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health named him one of its 75 most influential alumni.

In my home state of New Mexico, American Indians constitute just 11% of the population, but as of mid-June, make up more than half of the state’s coronavirus deaths. Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment. 

Data we do have show that white New Mexicans, who comprise about 37% of the state’s population, account for 25% of coronavirus deaths; Hispanic residents make up 49% of the state’s population and 15% of COVID-19 deaths.

The Navajo Nation has seen the highest disease numbers in terms of American Indian cases, but in some smaller New Mexico Pueblo communities, the cases represent a significantly higher percentage of the population. For example, about 11% of Zia Pueblo and 4% of San Felipe members have contracted the virus, compared to about 2% of Navajo Nation members who live in New Mexico.

In April, the Navajo Nation — which has a population 173,667 and lands in New Mexico and Arizona — nearly surpassed New York state for the highest coronavirus infection rate in the U.S. 

The outbreak was so severe that Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, deployed a team to help the Navajo Nation confront the virus. It was the first time in the aid group’s history that it had dispatched teams within the U.S.

Working with and in support of the Navajo Nation, the Doctors Without Borders team provided technical assistance to health care facilities and communities, assisting people who have historically been excluded from health care and emergency response efforts. The organization also deployed pandemic assistance in New York City and to migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida. 

In addition to inequities in pandemic response and access to care, American Indians also face racism and bias inside the health care system. In June, for example, journalists exposed an Albuquerque hospital that had instituted a “secretive” policy of special COVID-19 screenings for pregnant women who appeared American Indian and who lived in certain ZIP codes, even if they were healthy and had no symptoms. The investigation found that, in many instances, American Indian mothers were separated from their newborns after birth.  

This might sound like something that would have happened 70 years ago and not in present-day New Mexico, but it’s sadly real. (And, by the way, you can’t look at someone and tell if they are Native or not.)

It is no accident that American Indians find themselves in this position. We are here because the federal government has never fulfilled its commitment to our communities, be it ignoring the treaties that were made with tribal nations, failing to provide equal protection under the law or failing to make the structural and institutional changes that promote real equity, diversity and social justice. 

It is a manifestation 500 years in the making, beginning with dispossession of Native homelands, extermination via slaughter, and an array of foreign infectious diseases brought to this continent. Due to that genocide, our numbers have diminished to the point that we are now, in most cases, invisible. People don’t see us or know us. Some treat us as if we no longer exist, rendering a new form of racism.

Clearly, we are at a point in history where intervention is needed to provide a large and structural change to ensure the future of American Indian nations. The health of our first people reflects our national conscience, and it is killing us. Just look at the numbers again.

The U.S. rebuilt Germany with bipartisan support in Congress after World War II. That effort, known as the Marshall Plan, can serve as a model to address current inequities in infrastructure, health care access and access to capital for tribes. 

We must reject half-efforts lodged inside future COVID-19 relief legislation, especially those that disproportionately benefit rich corporations. We must demand a full-fledged and appropriate repair of existing structures and policies, to include all communities of color. 

If you’re interested in learning how to increase your cultural awareness and use your power to become an ally to American Indian people, I highly recommend this piece from Simon Moya-Smith. Read it — and then share it. 


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