Moving forward in Native American society

Alex Svoboda

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series written by students in NMU’s Native American studies program. November marked Native American Heritage month. 

This semester I have had the wonderful opportunity to take Native American Experience, a course offered by the Center for Native American Studies.

The Center does much to expose its students to various philosophies and cultures and brings in guest speakers whenever possible.

Several weeks ago, they had the honor of hosting several talks by renowned author, artist, activist and elder of the Waganakising Odawa and Minneconjou Lakotah nations Warren Petoskey.

Talking to several classes from the Center for Native American Studies, Petoskey took the audience on a journey through his own life, touching on his upbringing, faith, heritage and the paths his own people have traveled to reach where they are

In doing so he elaborated on the many governmental treaties and promises made by the U.S. government and how they have impacted Native American lives up until today.

As someone without Native American heritage or any close relationship with anyone that strongly identifies as Native American, much of what Petoskey spoke of was new to me. I would go as far as saying that it would be new information to most Americans, as well.

While it is impossible to summarize his whole presentation, there were some key facts that can be greatly elaborated upon in an attempt to portray his message of the struggles of Native American communities.

To simplify his message, I researched what he had to say about the state of Native American health, as the data very accurately portrays the potential for great struggle in today’s Native American communities.

According to the 2008 U.S. Census, Native Americans are 30 percent more likely to contract AIDS and 600 percent more likely to contract tuberculosis than any other ethnicity. They also have a 510 percent higher rate of alcoholism, 189 percent higher rate of diabetes and 62 percent higher rate
of suicide.

They are also 229 percent more likely to die in motor vehicle crashes than the
average American.

These figures cover a wide range of health issues faced by Native Americans, yet they all lead to the same conclusion: Native Americans have a disproportionately high risk of experiencing severe ill health in comparison to the rest of the United States.

While I’m sure many, if not most people, are completely unaware of this information, I am sure everyone is wondering, “Why are these numbers
so high?”

The truth is, there are many different answers all pointing toward governmental policies to eradicate, assimilate and relocate Native Americans for as long as Europeans have been present in North America.

Despite knowing the truth behind his people’s plight, however, Petoskey’s biggest message for the audience was that we must keep moving forward as a society every day.

We must remember the past, but we also must look to improve our futures as well as our children’s futures. Only then will we find measurable change.