By Scott D. Berns, National Institute for Children's Health Quality, January 20, 2023
What can we respectfully learn from indigenous cultures that have inhabited North America for thousands of years? Living symbiotically with the environment is a core practice and considering the impact of choices on the seven generations is a conscious way to make decisions. Many tribes are matrilinear and center women as leaders, and gender diversity is valued and protected. Traditional music pulses with drums steady and strong like a rhythmic heartbeat, passionate vocals joining together in unison. The strength of their collective voice is powerful, moving, and representative of the determination of modern-day American Indians and Alaska Natives to thrive despite the long-lasting, harmful impacts of colonialism.
Last September, I had the honor of being invited to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Prior Lake, MN, to bear witness to the challenges, disparities, and barriers to maternal care that American Indian and Alaska Native women and birthing people face. Sitting in a room with colleagues from NICHQ and others attending the Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Infant and Maternal Mortality meeting, we heard firsthand about their birthing experience struggles. Numerous women, families, and community members shared their profound stories about how the healthcare system is broken for them and how violence and incarceration have affected them – stories that overlap with the subjugation of African Americans but with unique lasting harms. Hearing a powerful presentation from Dr. Donald Warne, Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health, about the annihilation of indigenous people was shocking. We learned more about the negative health outcomes caused by the many ways our nation has failed our indigenous people, detailed in the Broken Promises Report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Even though I knew the data, being on tribal land deepened my understanding beyond the data, and it weighed heavily on me.