Sequim Bay Late afternoon at Sequim Bay, Washington (as seen from the Jamestown S'Klallam Indian Reservation). Photo by Jan Tik, Flickr CC
Late afternoon at Sequim Bay, Washington (as seen from the Jamestown S’Klallam Indian Reservation). Photo by Jan Tik, Flickr CC

Today some cities are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day in an attempt to counter the celebration of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas that led to years of disease, death, and the removal of native peoples from their homes. One thing to reflect on is how this turbulent past has had lasting health effects for Native Americans. According to the Indian Health Service (IHS), Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have a lower life expectancy than any other US racial group and they are more likely to die from heart disease, cirrhosis, and suicide.

Social science researchers point to a number of social and historical factors that help explain the high suicide rates for Native Americans, including racial discrimination, a long history of colonial exploitation, poor health outcomes, and poor communities. Many of these communities also lack access to quality reproductive healthcare, a disparity that researchers associate with high rates of c-sections among Native American women giving birth.
Poor health outcomes are also closely related to environmental injustice. The remote areas of land originally chosen for Native American reservations tended to be lands that were least attractive to White Americans, but perfect for military testing. The US military used adjoining lands and sometimes seized reservation lands to test military equipment, leaving toxic and dangerous materials in close proximity to Native American land. Native Americans living in areas with high levels of pollution attribute various health problems in their communities to pollutants, but are often unable to validate their concerns through institutional channels.