Native Health

Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, one might think smaller, more isolated communities like those in the reservation of Native Americans might be at an advantage. That, however, is far from true.

According to a report by The American Bar Association, Native Americans have “wholly inadequate” access to healthcare, which has led to them having the highest death rates from preventable diseases in the U.S.

According to Valerie Falcon, a chair for the American Indian Center in Springfield, the hospitals and clinics available to Native Americans provided by the Indian Health Service (IHS) are not only few and far between, but “dangerously ill-equipped” for a global pandemic such as COVID-19.

“IHS facilities are typically more like clinics, and as such they’re lucky to have even five ventilators or even five beds in the ICU,” Falcon said. “Not to mention that Missouri is not a native state, so the closest facility for an individual in, for instance, Saint Louis, is in Oklahoma, about four hours away.”

From Springfield, the closest IHS hospital is in Claremore, Okla., roughly two and a half hours away. While there are some smaller health centers in between, these facilities are typically not meant for patients in need of urgent care.

IHS facilities are only located in states where there are reservations of federally recognized tribes. This means Native Americans in Missouri in an emergency situation are faced with the difficult decision of either trying to make the multiple-hour trip to an IHS facility that may or may not have enough room to treat them, or go to a non-Native hospital where they are likely not as covered and will likely not receive the same level of care in regards to their cultural needs, according to Falcon.

“In my culture, our last rites are different from other cultures,” Falcon said. “We need to say goodbye to our families, even our extended members, and while other spiritual leaders will give us their version of last rites, ours would not be there to sing ours, which is something we need for our afterlife.”

Even to those out of Missouri on reservations, access to healthcare is still a challenge, as many reservations do not have an IHS facility and many residents do not have access to transportation to these facilities, according to Falcon.

Native historian and activist Matt McGill said even when they can reach these facilities, the government is doing little to help them handle the flood of patients.

“In South Dakota, when (Native Americans) were supposed to receive aid, they instead received body bags,” McGill said. “Natives have been ignored, and are being ignored […] if it weren’t for the election, we’d still go unnoticed, and if it weren’t for the internet, people would likely still be under the belief that we are extinct.”

Before COVID-19 was even a factor, the worry among Native American communities was that the world could feasibly see the last members of their respective cultures fade out of existence.

Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with Native Americans having the highest hospitalization rate, as well as being among the highest in case and death rates, this worry is accelerated as IHS hospitals are packed with patients they can’t treat.

Even if a Native American went to a regular hospital, there is a historic distrust with white medical professionals, according to McGill.

“Native healthcare protects us from racist white doctors who decide to take things into their own hands; many native women were forcibly sterilized throughout history by white doctors...with reports of this method of ‘femicide’ as late as 2017,” McGill said. “Mexican women, who are also indigenous to the Americas like my people, have also been reporting forced sterilization under ICE, so you could say it is an ongoing trauma for us.”

If you would like to learn more, visit sources like the Partnership with Native Americans, First Nations or the American Indian Services.

Follow Todd Dearing on Twitter, @mtodddearing

Subscribe to The Standard's free weekly newsletter here.