New Mexico in review

26 May

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Indigenous Health Leadership Institute in Albuquerque, NM. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this experience but I dove in head first excited to learn more about the field I want to join. I got far more out of it than I expected. As an American Indian I thought I had a pretty good handle on what this institute had in store for me, I was very very wrong. What I learned is that I have so much more to learn about what is going on in Indian Country.

The institute was an eye opening experience to say the least. We visited two reservations, one with self supported health services and the other with fledgling programs. It’s inspiring to see what tribal members are doing to help one another but at the same time the disparities that cause the gap between federal services and community services is mind boggling. The Indian Health Service receives about $3000 less per capita than Medicare does for its beneficiaries. This makes little to no sense as according to the IHS website “Indian people continue to experience health disparities. Indian life expectancy (72.3 years) is still about 4.6 years less than that for the U.S. general population (76.9 years). Death rates are significantly higher in many areas for Indians compared to the U.S. general population, including tuberculosis (500% higher), alcoholism (519% higher), diabetes (195% higher), unintentional injuries (149% higher), homicide (92% higher), and suicide (72% higher).”

This graph shows the funding for IHS per capita vs. similar programs

In To’hajiilee, a chapter of the Navajo Nation, we met with members of the community. We discussed a traditional approach to modern healing and the health problems that their communities faced. One of the elders that met with us described her greatest health concern to us in Navajo, as she was not fluent in English. What she told us is something that is almost unimaginable in the United States in the year 2010. She told us that the water in her house was so unclean that she periodically experiences respiratory infections. Imagine living in a place where the running water is contaminated and makes you sick. Imagine living with that your whole life, on government land, where there’s not anything you can do about it. It’s sickening to know that this can happen in our America.

We learned about decolonizing the way we approach things, problem solving based on assets rather than disparities and loving service. Decolonizing and cultural sensitivity are much more important than some may believe, especially when dealing with American Indian communities. You can’t treat one native community the same as another, even within the same tribe. One Pueblo’s problems and solutions are vastly different than another’s. American Indians may be a single category on the Census form but make no mistake that this is not one homogenous culture. There are over 5oo Nations in the United States who have different belief systems, traditions, and norms. In order to treat them, you have to understand them. Decolonize the way you approach them and you will be infinitely more successful.

Defining a community by its assets instead of by its problems is a completely different approach than what I learned in school but it makes so much sense! Basically if you highlight the good things a community can accomplish it can use the positives to address a negative or like they say “you can build on something that’s not there.” Community dynamics are so important when you’re dealing with indigenous health and health in general.

Loving service is something that Shannon and Anthony, the organizers of the IHLI are very passionate about. It’s the concept that devotion of time out of love can prove to be as successful if not more successful than devoting money to the cause. To read more about Loving service goto

Aside from the business part of the institute I met some truly awesome people, designed and screened some tshirts, got pulled over in an uninsured car (not our fault!), ate some green chiles (a lot of them), made some fry bread, played basketball barefoot boys vs. girls and won, played pool cowboys vs. indians and won (only because Sababa has mad skills), and made my plane home even though I woke up 55 minutes before it took off.

I left Albuquerque with a new resolve to get myself into a position to help these communities whether it be through getting my MPH or just going head long into the community. I feel like I’ve gotten that purpose I’ve been searching for since May 9, 2009 and I couldn’t be more excited.


One Response to “New Mexico in review”

  1. Naomi Soncag May 30, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    I’m so glad it was such a motivating trip for you . YEAH! I know how exciting it is to find what you feel like you’ve been searching for so long. Congrats.

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