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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Getting Healthy, the Native Way

Mark Bittman, in his column in the New York Times, recently remarked that few Americans know the name of our current Surgeon-General. Her name is Regina Benjamin, and she is, in a sense, “the nation’s doctor.” But Bittman contends that she is not doing much to keep us healthy. Benjamin is especially weak in addressing the role of “big food” in making us one of the unhealthiest industrialized nations in the world. American Indians have some of the worst health outcomes in the U.S. But can we learn anything about getting healthy the Native way?

American Indian healing is centuries old. And as far as Indians are concerned, it works! In a survey taken at an Indian Health Service Clinic in Milwaukee, 38 percent of patients said they had consulted a Native healer, and 86 percent said they would consider seeing one. These patients are responding to dismal health care. American Indians life expectancy is about three years less than the average American, and their infant mortality rate is 20 percent higher than the nation’s. Death rates from various causes are so dramatically higher than those of the general population that they are hard to believe. For instance, the death rate from alcoholism is 510 percent higher than that for other Americans; tuberculosis 600 percent; diabetes 189 percent. The list goes on. So no wonder that American Indians look for alternatives. (After all, Americans generally have turned to alternative medicine in recent decades.)

Most Americans express surprise at the poor health among American Indians―especially for those who live on reservations. After all, don’t Indians get “free” health care? As they repeat to deaf white ears, American Indians paid for health care with their land and their blood. It is one of the benefits guaranteed to Indians in treaties following bloody wars. In those agreements, Indians gave up millions of acres of their lands and their resources in exchange for schools, health care, tools and other benefits.

To satisfy treaty obligations, Congress established a health service under the commissioner of Indian affairs in 1892 and then the Indian Health Service (IHS) in 1955. But the service has been plagued since the beginning, at first by incompetence and corruption that kept vital services and supplies from reaching Indians and doctors and today by underfunding. After a study on the health disparities among American Indians, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called the IHS budget “anorexic. The budget would have to triple just to keep up with current levels of service. Per capita federal spending for Indian health care is even lower than that for inmates in federal prisons.

More money would certainly help. But now, American Indian physicians are finding ways to combine their medical school training with Native healing practices. As one doctor put it, much of the illness she sees is a sickness of the spirit. “Prozac won’t fix that,” says Tieraona Low Dog, a Lakota physician who is also a leader in the alternative medicine movement and a writer for Prevention magazine. Native healers have a crucial role to play in addressing conditions like diabetes, substance abuse and heart disease. When American Indians lost their culture, they also lost healthful ways of life, especially in diet and community life that addressed illness.

So today, Native healers work alongside physicians (including American Indian doctors) in some IHS hospitals, and together they braid their knowledge for their patients. Through the Association of American Indian Physicians, healers and doctors pass these techniques on to Native medical students. Using their approach―working with patients on improving nutrition and returning to Native spirituality― we can learn about getting healthy, the Native way!
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