Tohono Indian Women led the Tucson 2019 Women’s March with a show of strength, resilience, and power.

This Thanksgiving, Let's Vow to Do Better by the First Americans

Written by Marian Starkey, Vice President for Communications | Published: November 24, 2021

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the feast that is most often credited with becoming the first “day of thanksgiving”—the meal shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to celebrate their gratitude for the fall harvest. But for the past half-century, the United American Indians of New England have been commemorating the fourth Thursday of November differently—as the National Day of Mourning. While the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was mutually beneficial, according to historical records, it was unique in that regard. The atrocities committed by colonizers against native people over the past four centuries range from dispossession of lands to forced assimilation to kidnapping to genocide.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and while we love Thanksgiving foods and traditions (and back-to-back days off) as much as anyone, we also want to acknowledge that this holiday isn’t a happy one for everyone. For millions of Native Americans, it’s a reminder of the subjugation they’ve personally faced and the brutality their forebears experienced at the hands of white immigrants to their ancestral lands.

One way to right some of the wrongs of the past is to properly invest in the health care of American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) people. The Indian Health Service (IHS) has a less than stellar reputation of adequately fulfilling the needs of the 2.6 million people who officially belong to the 574 federally-recognized tribes. According to The New York Times:

In states with Indian Health Service hospitals, the death rates for preventable diseases—like alcohol-related illnesses, diabetes and liver disease—are three to five times higher for Native Americans, who largely rely on those hospitals, than for other races combined.

Federal government spending on health care for Native Americans lags that for almost any other population. In 2016, the federal government spent $8,602 per capita on health care for federal inmates compared with $2,843 per patient within the Indian Health Service.

American Indian and Alaska Native women of reproductive age are 2.6 times more likely to be vulnerable to poor maternal health outcomes, according to six factors: reproductive health care, physical health, mental health and substance abuse, general health care, socioeconomic determinants, and physical environment. Between 2014 and 2017, AIAN women had a maternal death rate of 28 per 100,000 live births, compared with 13 deaths for white women. And, of course, Covid-19 has hit Native Americans harder than any other group in the United States, with the highest risk of hospitalization and death of any racial group (when the data are adjusted for age).

According to Native News Online:

The President’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget proposes the largest single-year funding increase for IHS in decades. The budget requests a total of $8.5 billion in discretionary funding for the IHS. This is an increase of $2.2 billion dollars, or 36 percent above the fiscal year 2021 enacted funding level.

President Biden’s proposed funding increase is appropriate especially considering the growth in the AIAN population in the past decade. Between the 2010 and 2020 Censuses, the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population grew from 5.2 million to 9.7 million. This growth in population is partially attributed to more people claiming multiple ethnicities when they filled out the Census this time around—people who had previously selected one ethnicity in 2010 and who selected more than one in 2020. The population of people who claimed to be only American Indian and Alaska Native grew less dramatically, from 2.9 million in 2010 to 3.7 million in 2020.[1]

While our country’s treatment of Native Americans isn’t as aggressively hostile as it once was, there are countless lingering consequences of the injustices white settlers and the U.S. and state governments levied against the continent’s first inhabitants, who have been here for at least 15,000 years, and possibly up to 20,000 or even 40,000 years, by some hypotheses.

So, let’s stuff ourselves silly with some of the same foods the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians likely ate 400 years ago and many that they definitely didn’t (I’m looking at you, gelatinous cranberry cylinder) this Thanksgiving. But let’s also pay attention to the annual budgeting process and advocate for adequate IHS funding. We can’t take back the cruel actions of our ancestors, but we can do right by today’s tribal communities, starting with fully funding health care for the First Americans.

[1] It’s important to note that in 2019, people who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone had a total fertility rate of only 1.61 births per woman, according to the CDC’s American Community Survey—below the 2019 rate for the total U.S. population of 1.71. As is the case with the U.S. as a whole, momentum keeps the population growing even though total fertility is below replacement-rate.