A new vanguard of Indigenous changemakers is rising
EARLY 2021, as the first batches of corona virus vaccines were being distributed nationwide and many places were struggling to get hold of them, i walked into a Cherokee nation health clinic in our tribe’s main town, Tahlequah , Oklahoma, and I rolled up my sleeve.
When the needle dipped, I felt relieved. More importantly, I felt responsible. American Indians and Alaska Natives experienced the highest death rate of any ethnic group during the height of the pandemic, with a death rate twice that of their white counterparts, according to the CDC.
The pandemic has only amplified the existing poverty and health crises of many in our communities, while cutting off essential sources of support. As a culture, together we have survived colonialism and forced assimilation, the theft of our lands and resources, and systemic oppression such that the majority of us have left our ancestral lands to seek opportunities. somewhere else. It’s true: About 70% of Native Americans now live in urban or suburban areas. And no matter where we live, there are huge challenges in accessing tribal health services.
American Indians and Alaska Natives face higher rates of obesity, diabetes, alcohol use disorders and suicide, among other health problems. While the average life expectancy in the United States has increased in recent years, ours has not. It is now seven years younger than that of white Americans. Once the vaccine entered production, our tribal government coordinated closely with the Federal Indian Health Service to allow early access to elders, frontline health workers and native speakers who still teach and embody our culture. Then authorities quickly opened up access to all members of the tribe and helped stock clinics serving others in the state.
I didn’t expect to be in this Cherokee clinic. I normally live in Brooklyn, but after months of isolation, I felt the need to visit my elders and reconnect with my tribal community through get-togethers like local fundraisers. Months later, I continued to find ways to feel energized. Because amid the turmoil of the past two years, a new wave of Indigenous changemakers has emerged. Its members combine ancient spiritual values with modern practices to help us feel stronger and more vital so that we can shape a healthier future together.
Shea Vassar is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation based in Lenape Land (Brooklyn). She holds a master’s degree in legal studies from the University of Oklahoma, where she focused on the law of Indigenous peoples.
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