Growing up on Indian reservations we were afraid to see a dentist, afraid of having mouth pain. That wasn’t just because dentists are scary to little kids. The fear was that we would have pain and never be able to get help.
Access to quality and safe oral health care is a significant challenge for Native Americans – especially Native youth. Nationally, more than 50 percent of Native youth live in federally designated dental shortage areas and rates of oral disease greatly surpass national averages.
For us, seeing a dentist meant waking up early, traveling far distances and waiting in long lines. If you don’t have reliable transportation, it makes it even harder to get care. For those who can make the great distance, you still have to wait in line for hours for the slim chance to get care, meaning you miss work or school. Through all of this, many of those seeking care are suffering from excruciating pain.
It saddens us to see our elders and young ones standing in line starting at dawn just for a chance to see a dental care provider.
Sadly, we are conditioned to believe that a lack of access to care and poor oral health are normal for Native Americans. We accept that we will lose our teeth. Living with tooth pain is too often a standard.
We are done accepting that and we are working to change that reality.
Having good oral health and a smile we are proud of is part of our well-being. Oral health status is linked to self-confidence and self-esteem. It is well-documented that good oral health promotes healthy eating, lowers risk of diabetes and heart diseases, and helps people to live full lives without the distraction of aching teeth. Just having a healthy set of teeth can even help somebody get a job. The extended family and community impact from something like that is huge.
It is time we obtain the health care we need and deserve.
Native youth like us are connected to other tribal nations that are passionate about building relationships across communities and know about the successful programs that tribes in Alaska have developed. Courageous Alaska Native leaders brought innovative oral health care to the United States with dental therapy providers. But it was not easy. Outside groups that do not know our communities aggressively opposed dental therapists. Still, the Alaska tribes were successful in creating dental therapists that now provide care to more than 45,000 people who otherwise would not receive medical attention. As the most studied dental provider worldwide, the safety and quality of dental therapy care speaks for itself.
In Alaska, tribal leaders and youth advocacy changed reality for their Nations.
Our leaders are responsible for making health care system decisions for us and any attempts by states or special-interest groups to prevent them from doing so are unacceptable.
Leaders of sovereign Indian nations are the authority to decide whether they use dental therapy to help improve the quality of health care for us. Let’s make a positive change for our Indian communities and support dental therapy providers.
The authors are Native American college students working to advance the health and well-being of Native youth:
Aliyah Chavez, Santo Domingo Pueblo, Stanford University;
Eriq Swiftwater, Oglala Lakota Nation, Black Hills State University;
Autumn Harry, Pyramid Lake Paiute Nation, University of Nevada Reno; and
Danielle Finn, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Arizona State University College of Law.