A Native American woman gets screened for diabetesA Native American woman gets screened for

The numbers are staggering.

  • Native Americans live, on average, over five years less than other Americans. The life expectancy for the general population is 76.9 years. The life expectancy for Indians is 71.1 years. Native Americans around Aberdeen SD can expect to live only to their 64th birthday.

  • Native American young people are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the population as a whole. Another study showed that within Native populations, young men are the most likely to kill themselves. In the general population, elderly males are most likely.

  • Native Americans have alcohol dependency rates that are three times higher than the national average. Almost 20 percent of all Indian deaths are alcohol-related, compared with less than 5 percent for the general population.

  • American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rate of diabetes of any ethnic group, 2.6 times the national average.

  • Native Americans represent less than two percent of the U.S. population but they make up eight percent of those who are homeless.

  • It's estimated that up to 70 percent of Native Americans will suffer some sort of mental disorder during their lifetimes.

  • Native American women are raped, abused, stalked and murdered more than any other group in the country. Domestic violence rates are so high in Indian populations that the federal government has enacted new laws and appropriated money specifically to address the problems.

"If we do not find a way to change this epidemic," says Dr. Ann Bullock in Spiral of Fire, "we will have done what the bullets, the treaties, the boarding schools did not do. We will have succeeded in probably eliminating Indian culture in a meaningful way because there just won't be very many of us left who are healthy enough to pass it on."

Health problems are decimating the cultures of Native tribes by killing Indians before their times. The problem is made worse because the federal government's Indian Health Service, until recently, concentrated almost all of their resources on reservations.

Today, almost two-thirds of Native Americans live in urban areas far from their home reservations. The Indian hospitals, clinics and programs are on the reservations. The people are not.


Many Native leaders believe that the solutions for the diseases that are threatening tribal culture will have to come through strengthening that same culture.

Cherokee Choices, the diabetes prevention program on the Eastern Band reservation, is teaching children to have pride in their heritage as a way of breaking the cycle of generational trauma. On the federal level, the Indian Health Service is turning over control to individual tribes, recognizing that a program that might work with one tribal culture might not with another.

More and more tribes are turning back to traditional tribal spirituality and rituals to cleanse the bodies and souls of their members. Sweat lodge ceremonies have been used to treat alcoholism, post traumatic stress disorder in both white and Native veterans. Prisons in several states have allowed Native American inmates to practice sweat lodge and other tribal religious ceremonies as part of their rehabilitation.

In the pages that follow, we look at some of the major health problems facing Native Americans and the ways they are working toward healing.

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