Former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle will soon be seated as the head of the Health and Human Services. As a man who grew up in South Dakota and served as its Representative and Senator for many years, he, probably above all others, is highly qualified to know and understand the health problems prevalent amongst the Native people of his state.
Within the HHS is the Indian Health Service, an agency that serves the needs of the 1.8 million members of the 560 federally recognized tribes. The Indian Health Service has 15,102 employees and in 2008 operated under a budget of $4.3 billion. I.H.S. oversees 46 hospitals, 324 health centers, 309 health stations, and 34 urban Indian health programs.
Established in 1921 within the U. S. Department of the Interior, the Indian Health Service was transferred to HHS in 1955.
Now all of the above statistics makes the Indian Health Service sound pretty impressive and for lack of a better term, it is doing pretty well under difficult circumstances. And yet the average age of Native Americans is 25 percent less than that of the white population. The twin epidemic of diabetes and infant mortality is much, much higher than that of the average American.
Several months ago I wrote about several Lakota babies that died at birth and every week since then there has been a Lakota baby listed in the daily obituaries of local newspapers. The listings are no longer just a surprise, but instead are shocking. Why are so many Indian babies stillborn or why do so many die shortly after they are born? With all of its employees and facilities why can't the Indian Health Service determine the cause of this epidemic?
There is another dreadful illness on the Indian reservations of America that is just as shocking and apparently unsolvable. The rate of adult onset diabetes is decimating the Indian people. Nearly every month I lose a friend or a relative to this disease. So far I have lost two sisters and many cousins.
One of the most prominent families on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the Red Cloud family. They are the descendants of the famous Oglala Lakota leader, Chief Red Cloud. He authorized the purchase of the land upon which the Holy Rosary Indian Mission was built. As a student there many years ago I vividly recall his name on the façade of the gray, concrete building. Red Cloud Hall was the place that housed our classrooms, a gymnasium and our dormitories.
The Red Cloud family has been involved in the politics of the Oglala Lakota for more than 150 years. The Chief is buried in what has become known as "The Old Mission Cemetery" overlooking Red Cloud School.
There is no such thing as royalty amongst the Lakota people, but if there were, it would rest upon the shoulders of the Red Cloud's. Oliver Red Cloud, the great grandson of Chief Red Cloud now sits in a wheel chair having had one leg amputated because of diabetes. He has lost his son Verdell (two weeks ago) and his daughter Nancy, to diabetes. His son Lyman, a man that was always so active in the politics of the reservation, is now in a wheel chair in a rest home in Rapid City. Both of his legs have been amputated because of diabetes.
Oglala Lakota attorney Mario Gonzalez, a descendant of the respected Quiver family of the Eagle Nest District of Pine Ridge, lost his mother, Geneva Eloise Wilcox Gonzales to diabetes. Gonzalez said he was just shattered at losing his mother and so many friends and relatives to diabetes. He said, "When Nancy Red Cloud was put on the dialysis machine I knew it would just be a matter of time for her because I have seen so many Lakota end up on that machine."
On the lands of the Gila River Reservation in Arizona it has been reported that nearly 50 percent of the population has been decimated by diabetes. Several studies have been ongoing there to determine the causes and to seek solutions. Gila River was the home of that famous United States Marine, Ira Hayes, and the Pima Indian that helped to raise the flag at Iwo Jima.
Tom Daschle has been a friend of mine for more than 30 years. I wrote him to congratulate him on his appointment to head the HHS. He knows the problems of infant mortality and of the diabetes epidemic in Indian country better than anyone ever appointed to head that agency. He also knows that cancer can be added to the list of diseases that are now destroying so many Indian families. He also knows that the people of Indian country are counting on him.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com)