Some of you may know that I was born in Oklahoma, and that my DNA includes being one-quarter Cherokee. I am proud of it. The Cherokee are a remarkable people who have been around since time immemorial. According to the Cherokee Nation official website, today they comprise the largest tribe in the United States. An estimated 141,000 Cherokee Nation citizens reside within the tribe’s reservation boundaries in northeastern Oklahoma. PowWows.com, a destination site for Native American news and cultural reports, says they represent one of the currently 574 tribes that are recognized by the federal government.
It may be this connection to my long-ago roots that attracted my attention to a headline that appeared among health news stories from Kaiser Health News: “The Blackfeet Nation’s Plight Underscores the Fentanyl Crisis on Reservations.” Says Keith Humphreys of the Stanford-Lancet Commission on the North American Opioid Crisis, fentanyl has taken root in Montana. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation has been hard hit. As revealed by a recent study co-authored by the University of California, Los Angeles, in the first year of the pandemic, the overdose death rate among Indigenous people was the highest of all racial groups from 2019 to 2021.
Writes Aaron Bolton, a Montana-based Public Radio reporter, Blackfeet political leaders declared a state of emergency in March after the fentanyl overdoses continued to escalate. “The Indian Health Service, which is responsible for providing health care to many Indigenous people, has been chronically underfunded,” he notes. “According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, IHS per patient expenditures are significantly less than those of other federal health programs.”
UCLA researcher Joe Friedman says in speaking about the disproportionate overdose deaths among Native Americans, “I think what we’re seeing now is deep-seated disparities and social determinants of health are kind of bearing (this) out.”
“Contemporary Native Americans face many challenges today,” says a recent post on powwows.com in leading off a comprehensive review of current problems facing America’s indigenous people.
“While data for the U.S. Census are difficult to track on Native Americans for various reasons, there are mostly up-to-date stats on topics such as poverty and unemployment from the 2020 U.S. Census,” they write. “According to the World Population Review, about 33 percent of all Native Americans live in poverty … many live in overcrowded and poor conditioned houses on Indian reservations. There are over 90,000 under-housed or homeless American Indians. The living conditions of some Native Americans have also been compared to those in third-world countries.”
“Poverty can be largely attributed to the lack of employment,” they go on to say. “The pandemic affected Native communities incredibly, raising their overall unemployment rate to over 26 percent.” As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “American Indian and Alaskan Native are among the racial and ethnic minority groups at higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes.”
The post adds that many Native Americans live in multigenerational households, which provides “the perfect place for COVID-19 to take over.” They report that Native American tribal elders “died at an alarming rate in 2020, dissolving knowledge, language, and connection.”
“The elevated incidence within this population might also reflect differences in reliance on shared transportation, limited access to running water, household size, and other factors that might facilitate community transmission,” says the CDC.
“Due to the lack of available emergency medical care in some areas and the inadequate medical facilities that have been understaffed and ill-equipped, many Native individuals have not been able to get the care they needed during the pandemic,” powwows.com continues.
The lack of educational opportunities has long been a problem that has only intensified during the pandemic. According to powwows.com, the dropout rate for Native Americans “is twice the nation’s average and is more than any other U.S racial or ethnic group.” There is also the fear that Native American languages may soon become obsolete. Only 175 of the more than 300 native languages remain today, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. By 2050, as few as 20 could remain.
“Despite the hardship and grief, there were many inspirational stories among Native communities in the news,” they add.
I remembered one I reported on back in February 2021. It was a story of Navajo Native Zoel Zohnnie. In a world in lockdown, Zohnnie was greatly concerned for those isolated in remote areas of the reservation, especially the elderly and disabled, many with no access to running or clean water. Loading his pickup truck with barrels of water, Zohnnie began making daily deliveries to those isolated and in need. Word of his efforts spread throughout the tribe. Requests for his help began to pour in. He would need more trucks and funding. Along with others, he formed a nonprofit fundraising group called Water Warriors United. He next connected through a friend with an organization called Pandemic of Love. This organization soon worked out a way for donors to “adopt a Navajo household” and, through their donation, to purchase a delivered and installed barrel of water on an ongoing basis for families on the reservation. Since this coalition was established back in April 2021, it is reported that Water Warriors United has delivered more than 325,000 gallons of water to families in need. The effort continues today. It represents one example of the resilience and determination of a proud people to persevere even under the most difficult of conditions.
At the top of the powwows.com list of things that the modern Native American must grapple with is the fear of “not being seen or heard by the rest of society.” It is a fear that history has shown to be far too well-founded.