How Native Americans in the Southwest are taking control of their mental and physical health

Published on
July 17, 2017

Native Americans are more likely to experience negative health outcomes than other groups in the United States. According to the CDC, Native Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than any other racial group in the country. The rate of kidney failure for Native Americans and Alaska Natives has dropped in recent decades, but high rates of heart disease, obesity, depression and substance abuse continue to concern tribal leaders and public health officials.

Understanding the health problems Native Americans face today must start with the long-term impact of colonization and marginalization of indigenous peoples. In recent years, tribal leaders and health professionals have begun to recognize the value of helping people manage health problems by re-connecting with cultural practices and traditional foods.

Indigenous wellness

Our project will go beyond the stereotypical narratives that begin and end with the problem and explore what solutions are proving to be the most effective. Across Indian Country, there are examples of individuals who are losing weight and managing chronic conditions like diabetes by returning to a diet closer to what their ancestors ate, or running along the same paths as the generations before them. We will highlight voices and knowledge of Native communities across the Southwest where community members, advocates and tribal leaders are ensuring the Native perspective on balance is incorporated into health and wellness programs.

Families in Native communities face many challenges. Geographic isolation in rural areas contributes to limited access to gyms and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Families living at or below the poverty level also struggle with stress and limited access to resources to address health concerns. U.S. census data shows over 28 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty, the highest rate of any group in the country.

In our 2017 National Fellowship project, we will explore the effectiveness of health and wellness initiatives that seek to overcome these obstacles by combining the research with culturally relevant practices. Some tribes have well-established programs and gyms. Other Native nations are exploring ways to help improve the health of their tribal citizens. Individuals like Loren Anthony, a fitness instructor from the Navajo Nation, are also taking on healthy lifestyles on their own and getting their friends and families involved. Grassroots organizations are starting group exercise sessions, basketball tournaments, traditional cooking classes and workshops.

Native Americans are also younger on average than other groups in the United States. We will cover efforts to reach young people, before they experience chronic illnesses, through programs that teach golf or soccer, fitness classes, and running clubs. We are particularly interested in initiatives led by young people themselves who see a need in their community and want to help their family and fellow tribal members live healthier lives.

A multimedia approach

Together we have extensive experience covering issues related to poverty, health and Native American communities. In our reporting on these health challenges, we will use the Solutions Journalism approach to research the effectiveness of various local models of promoting exercise, healthy eating and habits that promote better well-being for vulnerable children and families. We are interested in the outcomes of solutions that were created within Native communities, not necessarily from the federal government or Indian Health Services.

Engagement with Native communities is also a key part of distribution for our radio and television series. We will produce content designed for sharing with public radio and television stations, tribal radio stations and the First Nations Experience (FNX) network. Radio is a vital means of communication in many tribal communities across the U.S. The airwaves serve up not only entertainment but are often the main source of news, information and emergency preparedness. Sharing health and wellness successes among one tribe or one program may lead to similar successes in other nations. Discussing the work that still needs to be done to address health disparities will also help raise awareness throughout Indian Country.

Is there a program in the Southwest that you think we should cover? Get in touch!

[Photo: David McNew/Getty Images]