Although they are America’s original inhabitants, when it comes to US policy, American Indians often suffer from invisibility. According to the 2010 US Census, American Indians number 5.2 million, 71 percent of whom live in urban areas. Another 22 percent live on tribal lands. A more recent 2016 Census estimate suggests that the 2010 numbers are understated and that American Indians and Alaska Natives number 6.7 million—more than two percent of the US population.
One of many signs of this invisibility is in politics. Today, the number of American Indians in Congress is two, or less than 0.4 percent of Congress. The number of American Indian women who have served in Congress since the founding of the country is zero.
Of course, the American Indian experience is rooted in a history of genocide and colonialism. This experience, notes Indian Country Today, has now been medically shown to have been “woven into the DNA of Native Americans.” As Mary Annette Pember notes in the article, “Trauma experienced by earlier generations can influence the structure of our genes, making them more likely to ‘switch on’ negative responses to stress and trauma.”
In this context, the health disparities affecting American Indians are dispiriting but not surprising. Among the statistics, a report issued last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights the following:
- American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy that is 4.4 years less than all US races (73.7 years to 78.1 years, respectively).
- American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of diabetes in the United States, more than twice the prevalence of diabetes among non-Hispanic whites.
- American Indians and Alaska Natives have higher infectious disease death rates than non-Hispanic whites.
- American Indian and Alaska Native adults are 50% more likely to have obesity than non-Hispanic white adults.
- The suicide rate among American Indian and Alaska Native adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 34 is 1.5 times higher than the national average for that age group.
- More than 26 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives lived in poverty in 2015, the highest rate of any racial group. For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate was 14.7 percent.
- The American Indian and Alaska Native high school graduation rate is 67 percent, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group across all US schools.
Additionally, as NPQ has noted, the American Indian community has also suffered heavily from the opioid epidemic, with overdose levels on par with whites and far higher than the rates affecting Blacks, Latinxs, and Asian Americans. This past January, three Dakota-based American Indian nations—the Rosebud Sioux, Flandreau Santee Sioux, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate—joined a slew of states, local governments, and other American Indian nations in suing opioid manufacturers and distributors for damages. To date,