I saw a news film many years ago about one of the concentration camps in Poland after World War II had ended.
The bulldozers shoving the bodies of the skeletal, naked dead of the Jewish inmates into open pits haunted me for a very long time.
Such an undignified way to die: Such an undignified way to be remembered.
My thoughts turned to the surviving family members. Those lifeless corpses tossed into the shallow pits were human beings at one time who had laughed, cried, danced, enjoyed good music and good food, and who loved and had been loved. And now they were reduced to skeletal cadavers with haunting eyes that still stared at a sky they once found to be beautiful in life.
Surely there were surviving family members who viewed these shocking movies and could identify the emaciated corpses as a father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle or as a cousin. To most of us as casual observers of this holocaust, these were just the bodies of people who had suffered horribly and were now experiencing the final act of all the indignities that had been heaped upon them by their Nazi oppressors. To members of their families, this final indignity must have been something few of us can ever imagine.
I am horrified by the way human beings suffer a loss of dignity at the end of their lives by a medical profession that is seemingly more intent upon making money than in providing those facing certain death with final acts of kindness. It seems to me that we, as patients, have become faceless objects to a profession too busy and too afraid of lawsuits to really carry out the promises of their Hippocratic Oath.
My mother was a very proud Lakota woman. She always dressed neatly, wore her hair just so, and always took great care to make a good appearance. She never left the house without preparing herself to look her very best.
The hospital where she died many years ago took that away. The medication given to her caused blisters on her tongue and lips. The hair she groomed with pride was allowed to become dirty and uncombed, and how she suffered as she fought for that last breath of life. It was a humiliating and undignified way to treat my mother and I have a hard time going near that hospital even to this day.
Lakota women were very modest. I can only imagine their embarrassment the first time they went to the office of a white, male doctor and were told to disrobe. One Lakota lady told me this was one of the most embarrassing moments in her life. "And then," she said, "The doctor had the nerve to ask other people to come into the room to observe."
The most humble Lakota are those gifted people known as Wicasa Wakan or Wicasa Winyan, Holy men and Holy women. They have been called Shaman and medicine men, but to our ancestors, they were holy or Wakan. They were also very poor. Their life was one of caring and sharing. They did not seek material gain, ever.
For untold centuries they cared for the ill. They treated them with herbs, and with song and encouragement. They treated the mind as well as the body. And above all, they respected the dignity of their patients. Two hundred years ago it was not uncommon to find men and women in a Lakota village 100-years- old and older. And now, with all of the advancements in medicine, the Lakota have one of the shortest life expectancies on this continent.
Diabetes is epidemic amongst our people. Some of the causes were brought upon us by ourselves, but much of it was caused by the loss of the high protein, low fat diet that had sustained us for generations. When the U. S. Department of Agriculture first introduced food commodities to the Indian reservations, they may as well have injected poison into the veins of the Lakota recipients.
Whenever I have had the occasion to visit the Indian Health Service Hospitals in places like Rapid City or Albuquerque or Phoenix, I have witnessed a scene that compares to the emergency wards of any major city. Patients sit in the lobby for hours waiting to be seen by a physician.
Indian patients are oftentimes treated like a number or like cattle. The harried Indian Health Service doctors, nurses and staff do their best, but with funds constantly being reduced and qualified doctors at a premium; it is very difficult for the federal government to carry out the mandates guaranteed to the Lakota under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
There are those who would say, "What in the heck are those Indians complaining about? They get their health services free." Then why is it that Indians have the highest infant mortality rate and the shortest life expectancy? We paid 100 times over for the supposed free health care when we gave up millions of acres of land and let the federal government incarcerate our Holy Men and Women, our doctors.
They were incarcerated because they practiced spirituality along with healing and spirituality was outlawed to us. Many Lakota died when their healthcare givers were taken from them.
Like those bodies I saw in the film about the holocaust, so many Lakota die without dignity. Across Indian country they lie in graves without crosses. They are poked and probed by doctors who care little about their modesty or their culture. And like the victims of the holocaust, so many Indians are dying way before their time.
In the more than 35 years I published a newspaper I can't remember how many obituaries I published of teenagers and younger who had committed suicide for lack of mental health care or spiritual guidance.
The loss of dignity and the loss of life oftentimes go hand-in-hand.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the retired editor and publisher of Native Sun News Today. He is the author of The Aboriginal Sin, Notes from Indian Country Volumes I and II and Children Left Behind. He can be reached at email@example.com)