While blogging here last week, I recently wrote a Stanford Medicine magazine story on the catastrophic health statistics of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My piece came after following a group of Stanford students who travel there every year to volunteer and learn about health disparities in the United States.
Although heartbreaking and at times difficult to read, the article has garnered an encouraging response from residents of the reservation and those who want to help change the situation. The story, taken from Longreads.com and Byliner.comhas been read by bureaucrats, health care workers, activists, educators and many people who directly suffer from the appallingly high rates of diabetes, alcoholism and suicide rates in a community where life expectancy in the 40-year-old rivals many developing countries.
After reading the story, Rebecca Foster, PhD, a psychologist whom I wrote deals with suicide on the reservation on a daily basis in her work at the Rosebud Indian Health Service Hospitalstopping to think:
I spent time thinking about your story and was touched by the despair, sadness and fatigue of everyone you interviewed. Working in the trenches every day, I forget how our lives appear to others. It was heartbreaking to see everything in black and white. I keep thinking that we keep on working and living and laughing and crying and doing our best because the other choice is to give up and do this is to dishonor and forget all those who came before us, the sacrifices that were made so that we could be here and have a good life. By our actions to help our people in need now, we allow those who will come after us, like my grandchildren, to have a chance to live a good life, to continue to walk the red road in happiness, to sing the songs of our grandfathers and grandmothers with joy. So I wake up every day with the hope of helping my people live another day and hopefully find purpose again.
Foster would also be touched by the outpouring of emails I’ve received – including those from an anesthesiologist who wants to volunteer on the reservation, a San Francisco nurse who plans to write to her congressional representatives to ask for help, and teachers from the local tribal college, Sinte Gleska University, who share the story with their students.
But what touched me most was the gratitude of many tribesmen themselves for exposing the situation on the reservation, where they often felt isolated and forgotten. Josh Cossett, who has friends in their twenties who died of suicide and alcohol-related accidents on the reservation, wrote to me:
There needs to be nationwide awareness of this problem. I feel like no one cares because no one realizes these people exist… It’s not a racial issue. It is a human rights issue. It has been going on for a century. The US government created this problem… Now we ignore it as if it didn’t exist while retaining our treasured logos and memories of when Indians bravely fought against cowboy cavalry. People wonder why more Native Americans don’t object to the use of their image as mascots… Maybe it’s something reserved for privileged white Americans. For natives like those of Rosebud, the debate over Indian nicknames is the least of their worries.
Previously: Broken Promises: The State of Health Care on Native American Reservations, Finding Hope on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and Back to Basics: A Student’s Experience Working with the Indian Health Service
Artwork by Jeffrey Decoster