As we gathered around the table with our loved ones for Thanksgiving, we counted our blessings despite the many challenges we are facing as a nation. We have experienced many economic and social plights in our history but have always prevailed. This indomitable spirit can be traced back to the Native Americans who showed kindness and generosity to America’s first settlers as they struggled in a new land. It’s time we return the favor.
Today, Native Americans are forced to confront a long list of their own issues. Now more than ever, our government should uphold the federal trust responsibility and moral obligations to Native Americans. We owe this funding through exchange agreements in which the United States obtained tremendous amounts of tribal lands that make up our beautiful country. It supports the Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Office of Special Trustee and its beneficiaries.
The Indian Health Service is an Operating Division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One look at its budget proves the dismal amount of federal support they receive. The most recent statistics proved that per capita only $1,600 in health funding was appropriated per person in 2010. This is far less than what is appropriated for the rest of America, which is over $5,000 per person.
With such stark contrast in medical support it is no surprise that almost half of Native Americans live without healthcare. Native Americans have a 40 percent higher chance of being infected by HIV/AIDS than non-Hispanic whites. They are twice as likely to have diabetes. Native American infants are twice as likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Their mothers are four times more likely not to receive prenatal care until the third trimester or not receive any prenatal care. Most alarmingly Native Americans have an approximately 70 percent higher suicide rate than that of the entire general population of the United States. Their youths are the greatest victims of this suicide epidemic.
In terms of education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs supports over 50,000 Native American K-12 students who attend schools under their jurisdiction. Because of a backlog of funding, these students are not receiving the education they deserve and have been promised. Native Americans should not be deprived of the opportunity to improve their future due to lack of resources. I believe that providing quality education is one of the most important responsibilities of our government, and we should not neglect our responsibility to the Native Americans.
Some may ask how in a time of such budgetary and economic struggles we can afford such monetary support. But I challenge that question at a time of great inequality, when we are giving huge tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations, and the top 1 percent of Americans own 42 percent of our country’s wealth. The need for change goes far beyond our duty to fulfill our legal obligations—it goes deep into our nation’s conscience.
In Congress we have the ability to better the life of every Native American by supporting legislation that will protect their rights. By addressing the many issues affecting Native Americans across America we can establish our country’s original commitment and respect. Our government must stand alongside Native Americans in working for a better future for generations to come.
As National Native American Heritage Month comes to an end, let us remember the compassion Native Americans once gave us. There is a great deal of work to be done and it will take a long time to address many of the critical issues facing Native Americans. However we must go forward. The first settlers came to America to build “a city upon a hill” and become the shining beacon of the world. We must stay true to our core values and give Native Americans the hope and trust that America has promised to them.
Charles Rangel is the U.S. Representative for New York’s 15th congressional district, serving since 1971. This column originally appeared on HuffingtonPost.com on November 30, 2011.