Congress must help Alaska Native health

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2008

The U.S. House of Representatives has the lives of millions of Native Americans in its hands.

Native Americans are still seeking basic fundamental rights afforded to them by the Constitution, including up-to-date, modernized health care. This is not the American way.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes that Indian tribes are independent governmental entities that have the inherent power to govern their own lands. They have a relationship with the federal government just as foreign countries do. But the give and take between tribes and the U.S. government is still not on an even scale here in the 21st century, especially when it comes to adequate health care.

Native peoples sacrificed a lot to help make this great country what it is today. Our ancestors ceded millions of acres of land to the federal government and in return, tribes received the guarantee that the federal government would protect the tribes' right to govern their own people and their reservations as homelands for tribal cultures, religions, languages, and ways of life.

It is time for the U.S. House of Representatives to make good on that guarantee.

The health of our people is imperative to maintaining our sacred ways of life. Native Americans continue to rank on the bottom of nearly every single indicator of good health. The life expectancy for males in the U.S. is 75 years. On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota it is 56 years, lower than in Haiti, where it is 58 years. Natives also face dramatically higher diagnosis and death rates from chronic illnesses such diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

The U.S. Senate took an historic step earlier this year by passing the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), a bill that will modernize health care in Indian Country. Now, the U.S. House must step up and vote to pass the legislation. The federal government must fully recognize this basic treaty responsibility by passage in the House and a signature by the president this year.

We have ceded our lands.

We have honored the treaties.

We have stood by our word.

Now it is time for the U.S. House of Representatives to uphold its end of the bargain and pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. That is the American way.

Mike Williams

Vice Chairman, Akiak Native Community

Alaska Area vice president, National Congress of American Indians

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