American Spirit: Years of injustice, diseases mean Native Americans die 6 years earlier than an average American

The Census Bureau's 2015 projections highlighted that the average life expectancy for Native Americans is 77.5 years

                            American Spirit: Years of injustice, diseases mean Native Americans die 6 years earlier than an average American
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The Native American and Alaskan Native populations have long experienced health issues and poorer health status in contrast to other Americans. Even in colonial times, large fractions of the Indigenous populations were wiped out because of their vulnerability to contracting diseases. The modern factors contributing to their deteriorating health include inadequate education, economic disparities, discrimination in access to health services, and cultural differences. As a result, they are troubled by a lower life expectancy and disproportionate disease burden. Their quality of life has been destroyed by economic adversity and poor social conditions.

According to 2017 data, an estimated 5.6 million people identify as Native Americans or Alaskan Natives or a combination of one or more other races. The racial group makes up 1.7 percent of the total US population. The Census from 2010 reveals that nearly 78 percent of this Indigenous populace lives outside the tribal statistical area, while 22 percent live on reservations or other trust lands. About 60 percent of those living outside reservations live in metropolitan areas which is the lowest metropolitan percentage of any racial group. The Census Bureau's 2015 projections highlighted that the average life expectancy at birth for Native Americans and Alaska Natives is 77.5 years (80.3 for women, 74.7 for men). Essentially, it is some 5.5 years less than the rest of the US population.

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But there are several other reasons contributing to the community's poor health. For one, the Natives grapple with poverty, unemployment and a rather sharp high school dropout rate. Secondly, and Historically, the removal of Native Americans from their land, the boarding school movement — where many Native children were forcibly separated from their families, renamed, had to adopt a new language and were also abused.

Natives pose a high risk of infections and diseases. Some of the main causes of death and rampant disease plaguing the Native Indian community include heart diseases, cancer, unintentional injuries, diabetes and stroke. Furthermore, they have high scope and risk factors for deteriorating mental health and suicide, substance abuse, chronic respiratory diseases, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), teenage pregnancy, hepatitis, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. Here are six rampant health issues that have ravaged the Native communities. 


According to the American Diabetes Association, Native populations have the highest rate of diabetes than any racial group, concentrated on the younger demographic. Although rates vary drastically, the number of diabetic Alaskan Natives are lower in comparison to the national average. Arizona's Pima Indians have the highest rate of diabetic Natives globally. Again, the reasons for the cause of the disease are subject to many factors, but primarily poverty and limited access to healthy food.

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On the other hand, Native American food culture was largely destroyed when the communities lost most of their lands and ended up having to survive on cheap and fatty foods supplied through federal rations. The Special Diabetes Program for Indians, a federally funded program established in 1998, has made significant efforts towards contributing to the health of the diabetic. A sovereign food movement has also been rapidly gaining momentum to fight to recover old agricultural practices and Native American fare. The incidence of diabetes, however, is particularly seen in children and continues to rise.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that more Native Americans succumb to an early death by injuries than any other cause, the average age being 44. In contrast to white Americans, chances of them dying in a car crash are two times higher, dying as a pedestrian are three and a half times higher, dying because of fire are two times higher and death by drowning is three times more likely, per Indian Health Service. Alcohol and living in a far distance from the nearest emergency care can also be contributing factors. In the last ten years, several Native American reservations have seen a spike in violent crime rates, even if the nationwide numbers have slumped. The law enforcement system is also undermanned, with too few tribal officers and federal polices. Even tribal courts are underfunded, in turn, creating a leeway for lawlessness. Some tribal nations have also seen brutal murders become a normal part of their life. 

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Tuberculosis has been a prevailing illness that has affected the Native American population for centuries, and the debate over whether it was the Europeans who brought the disease with them is still an ongoing one. Although the rates of tuberculosis infections have plummeted in the last 50 years or so, there are still evident disparities. The incidence of tuberculosis was seen to be five times higher for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives as compared to non-Hispanic whites, in 2008. In 2017, the tuberculosis rate was reportedly almost four times higher for Natives characterized by an incidence rate of 3.9, as compared to 0.5 for the white populace. The risk factors in contracting tuberculosis are commonly seen in low-income communities, which includes alcoholism, tobacco consumption, poor nutrition, diabetes, and inadequate medical facilities. But as immune systems are starting to improve, tuberculosis rates are starting to reduce. 

Sexual Abuse

The Department of Justice shows that one in three American Indian women is raped in her lifetime, which constitutes more than twice the national average. The rate of sexual violence within rural areas is nearly 12 times more, a survey by the Alaska Federation of Natives details, despite everyone knowing each other and where a culture of living in silence is more repressive. This is largely due to a lack of resources, an unresponsive tribal law enforcement system, and high rates of alcoholism. One failure of the judicial system is that it makes it impossible for tribal courts to prosecute men of a non-Indigenous race who rape Native women on tribal lands.

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In the past couple of decades, suicides among the younger demographics has become an epidemic in Native Americans. The younger populace comprising the Native population is likely to kill themselves more than any other group. According to federal data, Native American adolescents and young adults are three times likely to end their own lives in contrast to their peers. The Alaskan Native Tribal Health Consortium also found that Native women in Alaska are 19 times more likely to commit suicide than other women of their age range. Young people take the drastic step towards ending their lives because of various issues that affect the Native people disproportionately, including isolation, joblessness, substance abuse, sexual assault, incarceration and limited access to mental health services. 

Americans enjoy a higher health status, which is in stark contrast to the poor and troubling numbers in the health disparities faced by the Native population. With efforts and aims to improve the Native American health scenario, health care experts, policymakers, and tribal leaders are taking into account many factors that impact the health of the Indigenous populations.

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption. 

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