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Living treasures: improving the health of indigenous people.

During their lives, the parents of my dear friend George Charles were designated by the Smithsonian Institution as "national living treasures." George's father, Nick, was recognized for his artistry in carving masks and his mother, Elena, for her talent in constructing fur garments and for her leadership in the restoration of Yup'ik singing and dance after decades of suppression. I feel privileged to be one of the first people she told that the Smithsonian had invited her to the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. If you visit the room there that features information on the Yup'ik--who are an Alaska Native people--you can see her pictured in full regalia and read a short statement about her life.

Whether we call them native or aboriginal people or First Nations--a term commonly used in Canada--the indigenous people of this or any other country around the world share the responsibility of embodying and preserving their unique cultures and the deep wisdom and love for the land that enabled the early settlement of the continents.

I am honored to include such persons among my own ancestry, and although my primary ethnic heritage is that of people brought here against their will, I am privileged to have been befriended by Alaska Native people. From our shared cultural history of oppression and injustice, I begin both to understand their experience and to understand that of my own people from a new place. A common experience of indigenous people worldwide is what is now termed historical and cultural trauma, the outcome of colonization, discrimination and attempts to demean and destroy their languages and lifestyles. The effects of these onslaughts as well as the ongoing poverty of many such groups are seen in current disparities in health status and outcomes.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which unfortunately has not been ratified by the United States, delineates the right to the preservation of their heritage. In common with all of the world's people, the affirmative right of indigenous people to "the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health" is asserted, as is the right to traditional medicines and health practices and "the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals."


Clearly, for the First Nations of our own country, the standard of health described in the UN declaration is far from being achieved. As we move forward to the reform of our health system overall, the right of access to quality, comprehensive health care--including public health--for indigenous Americans should not be overlooked. We should be open to a deeper understanding of the unique communal ties that underlie health for the families and communities of indigenous people and to acknowledge their pre-eminent wisdom in planning and implementing health interventions that will be acceptable and effective in their cultures.

The world's indigenous people and their rich cultures and languages are treasures from which we still have much to learn. Their health and welfare should continue to be of national and international concern.

Cheryl Easley, PhD, RN
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Title Annotation:VITAL SIGNS: Perspectives of the president of APHA
Author:Easley, Cheryl
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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