Like all the relatives on my dad’s side of the family, I am legally a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
As my understanding of my responsibilities as a tribal citizen developed during my graduate training, I changed how I conceived my professional trajectory. I began learning to speak, read and write Cherokee, then pursued coursework beyond the PhD level at two different tribal colleges. I accepted a professorship at a second-tier university because it was close to Cherokee communities. (This last over the objections of a Princeton advisor who thundered, “I forbid you to go to the University of Tulsa!”)
Since then, I’ve applied my scholarly skills to issues in American Indian health. A research focus on tribal health needs required two years of postgraduate training in advanced statistical analysis and grant writing. This prepared me to compete successfully for grants through the National Institutes of Health and to collaborate with Cherokee Nation Health Services on a series of projects to enhance patient experiences at our tribal clinics. I’ve gone on, through work with the Native Elder Research Center (housed at the University of Colorado Denver), to train dozens of American Indian PhDs and MDs for research careers serving tribal health needs, guiding their work on issues from suicide to smoking, cancer, mental illness and other killers.
Sadly, America often falls short of its promises to the people upon whose land and resources its existence was predicated and still depends. While the federal government provides health care to tribal citizens without cost through the Indian Health Service, its hospitals and clinics struggle with chronic underfunding, understaffing and variations in quality.
American Indians remain the sickest of the country’s minority populations. Rates of mortality from diabetes, for example, exceed those in the general population by 177%, and those from tuberculosis do so by 450%. Suicide and homicide are leading causes of death for adolescents, and, on some reservations, a man’s average age of death is 45 years old.
Work toward “racial reconciliation” involves efforts to ensure that America satisfies promises to those with whom reconciliation is desired. For American Indians, these promises are enshrined in specific, still-binding treaties, many of which guarantee health care. They likewise inhere in the federal “trust” relationship at the heart of federal Indian law since the 19th century; this legal doctrine is the obligation by which the United States—having dispossessed Indian people of billions of acres of land, often by force—formally bound itself to protect their treaty rights, lands, assets and resources and to act always in tribes’ “best interests.”
I hope my work on American Indian health needs and my efforts toward training the next generation of American Indian health researchers will enlarge the foundation for racial reconciliation by helping my country keep its promises to its first peoples.
Dr. Eva Garroutte ’85 received a PhD in sociology from Princeton University in 1993. She has taught as an Assistant Professor at the University of Tulsa and served as a past Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Greater Tulsa Area. She is now a Research Associate Professor of sociology at Boston College and volunteers as mentor for the Native Elder Research Center. Publications include Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America and various articles in sociology and health-related journals.
For news, perspectives and information relevant to tribal communities, visit
www.indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com and www.bia.gov/FAQs.