As I blogged about here last week, I recently wrote a Stanford Medicine magazine story on the catastrophic health statistics from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My piece came after following a group of Stanford students who travel there each year to volunteer and learn about health disparities in the United States.
While heart wrenching and difficult to read at times, the article has generated an encouraging response from both residents of the reservation and people who want to help change the situation. The story, which was picked up by Longreads.com and Byliner.com, has been read by bureaucrats, health-care workers, activists, educators and many who suffer first hand from the shockingly high rates of diabetes, alcoholism, and suicide rates in a community where life expectancy in the high 40s rivals many developing countries.
After reading the story, Rebecca Foster, PhD, a psychologist who I wrote about as dealing with suicide on the reservation daily in her job at the Rosebud Indian Health Service Hospital, paused to reflect:
I spent some time thinking about your story and was touched by the despair, sadness and fatigue of all those you interviewed. Working in the trenches everyday I forget how our lives appear to others. It was heartbreaking to see everything in black and white. I keep thinking that we keep working, living, laughing and crying and doing our best because the other choice is to give up and to do that is to dishonor and forget all those who have gone before us, the sacrifices that were made so we could be here and have a good life. By our actions to help our people in need now, we allow those that come after us, like my grandchildren to have a chance at 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 rise everyday with the hope to help my people live through another day and hopefully find a sense of purpose again.
Foster would also be touched by the outpouring of e-mails I’ve received - including ones from an anesthesiologist who wants to volunteer her time on the reservation, a nurse in San Francisco who plans to write her Congressional representatives to ask for help, and teachers at the local tribal college, Sinte Gleska University, who are sharing the story with their students.
But what has most affected me is the gratefulness of many members of the tribe themselves for our exposing the situation on the reservation, where they’ve often felt isolated and forgotten. Josh Cossett, who has friends in their twenties who have died from suicide and alcohol-related accidents on the reservation, wrote to me:
There needs to be nation wide awareness to this problem. I get the sense that nobody cares because nobody realizes that these people exist... This is not a racial issue. It is a human rights issue. It has been going on for a century. The U.S. Government created this problem... Now, we ignore it like it doesn't exist while holding on to our precious logos and memories of when Indians fought bravely against cowboy cavalries. People wonder why more Native Americans don't stand up against the use of their image as mascots... Maybe that is something reserved for privileged white Americans. For Natives such as those on Rosebud, the debate over Indian nicknames is the last of their worries.
Previously: Broken Promises: the state of health care on Native American reservations, Finding hope on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and Getting back to the basics: A student’s experience working with the Indian Health Service
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster