Matter of Opinion 2/1996

It's A Matter Of Opinion

by elmer m. savilla
February 1996

Of Political Decay and Broken Promises

First, as we went to press the Congress and the Administration reached yet another agreement to keep the government running. Both sides have their sights set on the November elections and purely political motives, too much so for the likes of me. Their actions are, more than ever, tied to political party goals and they don't care one whit about the health and welfare of the general public.

This new agreement will last only until March 15. Fine, but its time for us, you and me, to put that same limit on their term of office or at the very least, their salary. Their salary, for instance, should be considered as earned ONLY while the entire government is operating as it should. When the government, or any part of it, stops operating--so should the salaries of the president, senators, and representatives. They are getting paid from our taxes to do a job which they have failed to do. Enough of silly attempts of political blackmail and self-seeking. We Americans have a constitutional right to expect the finest form of government in the world. Do we agree? If so, flood the office of the president and the congress with your angry letters!

The Great Health Hoax of the 1990s

The health and well-being of American Indians has always been a concern to the policy-makers of this country. But in the early days of the US, and perhaps even now, their concern was usually that Indians were too healthy for their own good, living out on the plains and deserts and mountains where they had thrived since time immemorial. They were too happy dancin' and eatin' buffalo burgers, thought Washington, D.C. and besides they're living where we want to put railroads and other "stuff."

Yes, they were too healthy for their own good, thought the likes of President Grant and General Sherman in 1865. Immediately after the Civil War, white expansionists were hollerin' for more land and the Indians were standing in their way. So activity was set in motion which seriously threatened the good health of the Indians through starvation or disease on reservations, or by bullets off the reservation. General Sherman didn't much care which method was used, and in fact he gave the Indians their choice. "Either report to the reservations we have given you, or we will hunt you down and kill you," he told them. Some choice.

The miracle of the 20th century has been the survival of Native Americans through periods of disease, genocide, and intentional mistreatment.

During the time of the American Revolution (that's when they did what they're now afraid we will do) there were approximately five million Indians who survived the tortures of the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch invasions. By the end of the 19th century there were barely 500,000 Indians left to carry on their respective tribal heritages.

Today, as we near the end of the 20th century, there are about two million who can qualify as "enrolled" (official) tribal members and probably another two million who claim to be Indian but cannot prove it. But who is counting? The US is counting, that's who. They want to know how many "official" Indians there are.

An amazing fact is that since only 1960, the Native American population has more than tripled in number, according to the US census takers. But that number is misleading because many who used to claim to be White, Hispanic, or Black, now claim to be of Indian descent.

In 1960, the count was only 523,600 Indians. By 1980 the number had jumped phenomenally to over 1.4 million and by 1990 it had increased to 1,959,234. In a ten year period, this was a 38 percent jump. If during the next few years the percentage repeats, by the year 2000 there will be over 2.7 million Native Americans.

Of that number over 1.5 million will be over the age of 21 and therefore will be qualified voters. They will begin to be a political force to be reckoned with and you can be sure the Congress will take note of that fact. The impact will be more effective on a statewide basis than nationally, at least for the next twenty years. But then, lookout America!

These census figures for many states should encourage tribal governments to hold fast to their sovereign ideas and to resist encroachment by get-rich-quick schemes and fast-buck developers, because in just a few short years their sheer weight of numbers will ensure their place in state politics. For instance, in Minnesota the Indian population increased 43 percent from 1980 to 1990. New York State had a 58 percent increase; Oregon 41 percent; Oklahoma 49 percent; Nevada 48 percent; Colorado 54 percent; and Tennessee 97 percent. (Tennessee has no Indian reservations so it is assumed they were all imports from other states). Some unlikely eastern states showed surprising jumps in Indian population over the last ten years. New Jersey, never known for its "Indian Country" counted 15,000 Indians, which was a 78 percent increase from the past census. In Virginia, the Indian count grew by 62 percent; Texas by 64 percent; and Missouri by 61 percent. In contrast, New Mexico and Utah, in the center of Indian Country, grew by only 26 percent. Those differences in counts from the more urban states and those with sizable Indian country gives credence to the theory that more and more, it is fashionable and desirable to be an "Indian." Some increase is due to the birthrate, of course, but sociologists suspect that much of it is due to the "self-identification" or urban dwellers without family roots or social ties who now see this as an opportunity to "belong" to something. The relaxed self-identification rule allowed by the US Census Bureau could be a blessing in disguise. Of the individual tribes, the Miccosukee and the Seminole of Florida take top honors for proliferation during the past decade. In 1980, Florida counted 19,257 American Indians living there. By 1990, the count had increased to 36,335. A whopping 89 percent increase.

As we approach the next census, it seems nothing short of a catastrophic health problem can stop this phenomenal growth of our Native population. Sadly, such a catastrophe is not too hard to imagine. An outbreak of illnesses on Indian reservations caused by open uranium mines and tailings; plagues from illegal chemical and waste dumps; a disastrous accident from stored nuclear fuel rods, all are possible.

Within 200 years after the arrival of Columbus, almost 10 million natives were killed by diseases or by other means. In more modern times, it wasn't until the 1960s that serious efforts were begun to establish federal programs to improve the health of American Indians. Up until 1955 the Indian Health Service had been a part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was then transferred as a separate agency to what is now the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Things went well, until in 1980 Pres. Reagan began making deep cutbacks in health services for Native Americans.

Since the time of the last two census-takings, health services available to Indian reservations have been gradually disappearing and some of the old health problems are reappearing. For at least the past eight years, many reservations have had no access to emergency services or care for major illness. Most reservations are completely without local access for kidney dialysis services. The Indian country joke that "If you plan to have an accident, please make an appointment for emergency service," is really not a joke at all. For many reservation residents, it has been a reality. "No appointment, no emergency service."

In 1982, when the real attack began on Indian health services, Richard Schweiker, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services received a letter from the US General Accounting Office (GAO) which told him of an "opportunity" to avoid construction of certain Indian Health Services hospitals.

Remember that up until this time health care for Indians had improved tremendously from 1965. By 1980, IHS operated 49 hospitals, 102 health centers, and 300 smaller health stations. In FY82, IHS and HHS had plans to replace or modernize seven hospitals- most of which were over 50 years old-at a cost of $66 million. Nine hospitals were to have structural deficiencies corrected, and personnel quarters were to be built at four isolated rural hospitals.

The GAO suggested that instead of continuing hospital and clinics in Indian communities, that contracted care from non-Indian hospitals "could be less costly." They anticipated opposition from tribal governments but none came. GAO wrote, "We recognize that discontinuing inpatient health care at these nine hospitals may raise concerns or opposition from tribal officials"-and here they used the result from only one tribe, the Pawnee, to justify their action-"However the Pawnee tribe members recently began receiving all of their hospital care under contract with community hospitals and they seem to be satisfied with this arrangement."

Contract Care came into being in 1984 and Indian illnesses reflected the lack of health care. In 1991, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on the FY92 budget. The director of the Indian Health Service told the senators, "The goal of the IHS is to raise the status of health of Indian people to the highest level possible." He went on to expound on his success in management and service delivery.

Senator Inouye, chairing the hearing said, "Your statistics are impressive, but as we speak, aren't Indians dying of tuberculosis by over 400 percent of all other races in the US?" The director answered lamely, "Yes."

Inouye persisted, "and for alcoholism by over 330 percent?" Answer, "About 400 percent. Yes sir, that is correct."

Inouye, "And diabetes by about 150 percent?" Answer, "Perhaps a little higher, yes sir."

The irony of this exchange is that during this same period the IHS director had spoken glowingly of the fact that the death rate for Indians was "essentially the same as for all US races."

There is a definite link, we think, between good health and good government. In 1991, the Dept. of Education released a report which pointed out that in 1965 twenty percent of children under 18 lived in poverty. By 1970 after five years of the Democrats Great Society, the number had dropped to 15 percent. Then from 1980 through 1991, (the Reagan and Bush years) the percentage of children living in poverty climbed to 20 percent and has remained there to the present.

Another statistic related to good government, in 1964 the poverty rate in this country was 19 percent. By 1970 the poverty rate dropped to 12 percent. Again, from 1981 through the present the rate has climbed. During the first week of 1996, industry announced that approximately 50,000 jobs would be eliminated soon.

A real fact is that the Great Society's social programs which Reagan and Bush had called "failures" and which the Congress wants to eliminate are helping millions of Americans today.

Today, before the American Indian gets a chance to enjoy the joy of being healthy, what little health care they now get is going to be taken away from them. Is this America, or what?

It is obvious that to address the health needs of a race of people who has suffered through 460 years of disease and low-life expectancy, it would take years to identify and treat the most serious of the many health problems brought to them partly by the federal government's systematic and deliberate destruction of the Indian's natural food supply, partly from imported diseases against which Indian's had no natural defense, and from participation in unhealthy imported vices.

All that is being asked is for the Congress to recognize the need and its responsibility to American Indians, then to act on that behalf. A-ho!

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