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Tim Giago: Indian health care a national tragedy
Monday, April 21, 2008
Filed Under: Opinion

Mycole James Ferguson and Leah Page will never grow up to find their potential in life. Both infants were stillborn one week apart on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence on this vast Indian reservation. It is to the shame of America that its indigenous populations are at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to adequate prenatal health care.

The families of Mycole and Leah are still suffering from the loss of their children. And yet week after week, month after month and year after year, the names of stillborn Native American infants will be listed on the obituary pages of local newspapers.

Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek Magazine that, “In international comparisons of health care, the infant mortality rate is a crucial indicator of a nation’s standing, and the United States’ position at No. 28, with seven per 1,000 live births – worse than Portugal, Greece, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and 23 other nations not exactly known for cutting-edge medical science – is a tragedy and an embarrassment.”

Most Americans believe that the United States has the best medical care in the world, but that is clearly not the case. One has to wonder that if America rates number 28 in the world in infant mortality rates, how do the poor and uninsured rate or the Native Americans on the Indian reservations rate? There is a gap so wide that it might as well separate the poor and the Native Americans from the rest of America by an ocean’s width.

In a letter last week to the Senate and House Budget Committee, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) wrote, “The Contract Health Services Program of the Indian Health Service has an unmet need of over $1 billion dollars. This program allows for medical care and urgent health care services to be purchased when the Indian Health Service or tribal health facilities are not able to provide it. This is the program that has given rise in Indian country to the saying, “Don’t get sick after June,” because it is common for the Indian Health Service to run out of funding for Contract Health Services after June.”

Sen. Johnson said, “I have worked with my colleagues to correct President Bush’s budget proposal for the Indian Health Service which grossly neglects the needs of Indian country.” Sen. Johnson is a member of the Indian Affairs Committee.

Among the very poor Indian tribes in America there is a crisis in health care and let me be very clear about that. Diabetes, Type 2, is epidemic. The infant mortality rate is staggering. The average life expectancy is lower on Indian reservations than in any other area of America. On many reservations from the Navajo Nation to the Pine Ridge Reservation, deaths by cancer are starting to reach epidemic proportions. Death by heart disease has never been higher and it is still climbing.

And we were considered wards of the United States government? I think we were better off when we were considered the enemies because we at least had the opportunity of taking care of our own health problems. The benevolent eye of big brother looking over our shoulders has been more of a curse than a blessing.

The hardworking doctors and nurses of the Indian Health Service are not to blame. They can do only so much with the money they are allocated each year. And it seems that every year senators like Tim Johnson and Congress women like Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) have to fight tooth and nail to squeeze out every single dollar. And oftentimes it is a losing battle for them, but the real losers are the Indian people. Earmarks? Why not?

Indian nations gave up millions of acres of land in exchange for the right to an education and adequate health care. These two provisions are a part of nearly every treaty signed between the United States of America and the Indian nations. It is not welfare the US is providing, but an obligation in fulfillment of treaty rights.

Dr. Leroy Clark is one of the doctors at the Sioux San Indian Hospital in Rapid City, SD. He is Native American and he talked about some of the things the hospital and staff is trying to do for their patients with little money, but with a lot of enthusiasm. And there is no finer bunch of people than you will find staffing any hospital in any city. Most of the staff at the Sioux San is Native American and they are kind, gentle and genuinely concerned for their patients and that is a big plus when one is in poor health.

If America can spend $1 billion dollars a day fighting a war in Iraq, surely it can find the compassion to spend an equal amount so that babies like Mycole and Leah will have a chance to be born into this world. Prenatal care on the Indian reservations should not be so strapped for money that babies are dying because of it.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: CBC goes after Cherokee Nation (4/14)
Tim Giago: Thirty years and 1,560 columns later... (4/7)
Tim Giago: Bury My Hertz at Wounded Knee (3/31)
Tim Giago: Indians lost in race relations debate (3/24)
Tim Giago: Disenfranchising the Oglala Lakota people (3/10)
Tim Giago: Paying tribute to Harold Iron Shield (2/27)
Tim Giago: No celebrating at Pine Ridge Reservation (2/25)
Tim Giago: Apology of no use for Native Americans (2/18)
Tim Giago: The education of Jerry Reynolds (2/11)
Tim Giago: In honor of Carole Anne Heart (2/4)
Tim Giago: Claiming Indian status to get ahead (1/28)
Tim Giago: Wounded Knee book a must read (1/21)
Tim Giago: Sen. Barack Obama and the 'R-Word' (1/14)
Tim Giago: The medicine of Michael Haney (1/7)

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