By Nellis Kennedy-Howard, Sierra Club
My wife Suzanne has written about living with lupus, a chronic illness requiring intensive care. She has a whole team of health care providers to help meet her unique needs. Living with lupus is scary at the best of times — many people in Suzanne’s family have lost their lives to this disease — but right now the stakes feel higher than ever.
Suzanne and I are just two of the millions of Tribal citizens whose treaty rights are being violated every day that this pointless government shutdown continues. You heard me correctly: healthcare is a treaty right. When Tribal governments and representatives signed away our ancestral lands to the U.S. government, they did so in exchange for a guaranteed right to health care, as well other rights for hunting, fishing, and gathering (which are also routinely violated). Every citizen of a Tribal nation is legally entitled to health care through the Indian Health Service (IHS), although unfortunately that care often fails to meet the standard enjoyed by other people in the U.S. In fact, health care afforded for Native Americans is substandard when compared to Veteran health care and prison health care.
Right now, IHS service providers are having to close their doors because the federal government is unable to deliver the contracted, treaty-protected funds that the IHS needs to operate. All across this land there are grandmothers who can’t get their insulin, young kids trying to “save” their inhalers, and Native people who have no idea when their access to basic health care will resume.
Suzanne and I are lucky. We can fall back on the health care provided by my job at Sierra Club. But this is hardly the first time that my family’s health has been jeopardized by systems of white supremacy. My mother, my grandfather, and my great-grandmother all had tuberculosis, a disease introduced to Native communities by white colonizers and dramatically worsened by crowded and unhealthy conditions where Native people have been held against their will for generations. From the camps along the Navajo Long Walk to the boarding schools my mother was subjected to, sites of violence against Native peoples have always been breeding grounds for diseases like TB. And this isn’t just a history lesson — even today, rates of TB are five times higher in Native communities than among white people.
Because of the abuse she suffered as a Native woman, my great-grandmother refused to go to a sanitarium to be treated for her TB. My grandfather spent over a year of his life in one. My mother had TB as a child, and has suffered the consequences her whole life.
I remember when I was about 9 years old, my mom was studying to become a nurse. I was so proud. I went out and bought her a magnet that read “world’s best nurse.” But soon after that, she learned that people who have had TB can’t be certified to work as nurses. She had to drop out of nursing school.
Native peoples have paid dearly for our access to health care. Historians estimate that about 90 percent of Native peoples were killed by diseases like TB, smallpox, and influenza that colonizers brought to our lands. And ever since that period, the health of Native peoples has been undermined by environmental injustice, lack of access to traditional foods and medicines, and outright warfare perpetrated by the federal government.
It’s bad enough that our health care is substandard. It’s bad enough that generations of Native peoples have suffered from diseases that tie directly back to the intergenerational impacts of violence and genocide. It’s heartbreaking that my mother had to give up her dream of being a nurse. And now this government shutdown is just too much.
On the Navajo Nation, where my family is from, police officers are working without pay. Whole families that rely on a single paycheck to get by are going without heat. People are trapped in their homes because federal maintenance workers are on furlough. Elders are going hungry because they live in a remote location and rely on federally funded meal delivery services.
All of this, so one man can use the American people as pawns in an embarrassing political tactic the likes of which modern America has never seen. To be clear, the shutdown is not about a wall.
The unapologetic racism of the U.S. federal government has hurt my mother. It has hurt my family. It decimated my ancestors. If this shutdown continues or resumes despite the deal emerging today, it will certainly harm my wife’s fragile health.
I ask you today to call on your congressional leaders to say no to the wall. Say no to the man who is willing to harm my family just to score political points. Say no to the tactic of holding my health hostage to push an agenda of racism and xenophobia.
I have everything to lose in this shutdown, but I will not compromise on human rights. Join me today to demand an end to this dangerous and damaging shutdown, and no funding for Trump’s asinine border wall.