Indigenous peoples and H1N1 deaths

A continuing legacy of inequality

By Dolores Cox

In December, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report regarding national mortality and infection rates from the H1N1 “swine” flu virus. One portion of the report was almost an afterthought and not very widely reported: Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Alaska have been four times more likely to die from the swine flu as has the population overall.

Similar findings have been the case in Canada, where some Manitoba First Nations communities were outraged in September when the Canadian government initially sent body bags and masks rather than much-needed medicine or medical personnel.

Are Native people somehow genetically more susceptible to H1N1 and hence more likely to get sick and die from it? Not at all. Racism is the cause of these increased death rates.

Native peoples are hit harder by any flu pandemic due to high poverty rates and higher rates of diabetes, asthma and other conditions that place them at higher risk.

A November 2009 report published by the Institute for Policy Studies, entitled “Challenges to Native American Advancement: The Recession and the Native American,” documents the condition of Native peoples in the U.S. in the 21st century. (

The report gives a brief history of the growth of the North American economy since the first European arrival in the 15th century, and its correlation with the concurrent collapse of Native nations’ economies. “The modern U.S. economy is based upon the stripping away of wealth — notably, land and natural resources — of Native Americans to create a foundation for a European-American economy. This legacy is seen in the contemporary economic disenfranchisement of Native Americans.”

The report highlights factors that have led to disparities between Native peoples and non-Natives, such as the appropriation of Indigenous peoples’ lands for the gain of white settlers; the mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the resources found on Native lands; and the underinvestment by the federal government in Native nations’ education, health care and economic development.

Key findings are that the poverty rate as of 2007 for Native peoples is more than twice the national average, and almost three times higher than the rate among whites.

With regard to health care, only one-third of Indigenous people have health insurance. Native people have the highest rate per person of disability among all racial and ethnic groups, and are twice as likely as whites to die from diabetes, 60 percent more likely to have a stroke, and 20 percent more likely to have heart disease.

Native peoples’ unemployment rate is double that of the U.S. population as a whole. In this recession, industries with a relatively high number of Indigenous workers have experienced disproportionately high job losses. Additionally, over the past 30 years government spending on programs for Native peoples both on- and off-reservation has decreased dramatically.

The report notes that not only is “this country’s past and present still stained by the legacy of enslavement of African people [but] the original sin was the treatment of America’s Indigenous people. As the nation works to reverse today’s economic decline, it must finally work to repair the stains of the past.”

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