Last January I wrote in Indian Country Today that a "sea-change" is required in Indian health care and that the most important part of this change has to be a campaign to focus on the root causes of Indian health problems, starting with the health and habits of Indian youngsters.
In the last session of Congress I held hearings on the problems facing Indian youth and elders. The hearings showed how good diet, physical activity and positive lifestyle can prevent the fate that meets far too many Indian elders: diabetes, amputations, emphysema and shortened lives due to alcohol and tobacco used for other-than ceremonial purposes.
Just last December, Congress took a step in this direction by expanding the Special Diabetes Program for Indians to include $100 million to tribes and tribal organizations for diabetes treatment, research and prevention.
A healthier Indian community starts with healthier Indian kids but these future leaders are facing disturbing health trends.
Recent studies by Indian health experts show that:
*Diabetes among Indian youth ages 15-19 has increased 54 percent since 1996;
*40 percent of Indian children are overweight;
*47 percent of Indian youth ages 12 - 17 reported using illicit drugs;
*The alcoholism death rate for 15-24 year olds is 10 times greater than the national average;
*The suicide rate for American Indian youth is three times greater than the national average.
These statistics should alarm all of us concerned about the future of Indian communities and the future of our country.
Where do we find the answers to this situation? To help find solutions, I held hearings at which tribal leaders, health professionals and others stressed the importance of a comprehensive approach.
I made clear at the outset of the hearings that I did not think the answers were in Federal programs or additional spending alone. While assistance can be helpful, at their core, these are problems of choice and responsibility. What is needed is for Indian parents and Indian kids to take control over their lives and make the kind of decisions that will lead to long, healthy, and productive lives. The witnesses highlighted the need for more community-based programs involving parents, health educators, schools, and health clinics to address health problems among Indian youth.
I am encouraged when I hear about the many successful programs across Indian country that encourage healthy living, such as the Northern Cheyenne Head Start effort. The tribe partnered its Head Start and education departments with the Indian Health Service to create a program that focuses on diabetes prevention, healthy eating, and vigorous physical activities.
Mental health is also an important thing for youngsters and the combination of healthy eating, physical activities and esteem-building are strong forces in keeping Indian kids healthy and out of trouble. Our children must have alternatives to drugs and alcohol, which destroy their health and future.
I know this fact too well. As an Indian youngster, I faced the hard choices involving alcohol, gangs, or a more constructive path. I found discipline and purpose in getting my G.E.D. high-school equivalency diploma, in law enforcement, in the military, and in athletics. I chose the practice of judo and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team competing in Japan in 1964.
This is an important point - not because of the medals I earned, or the kudos I received - but the opportunity and hope competitive athletics gave me. If that activity had not been available to me, I could have easily become an alcoholic or ended up in jail. Our Indian kids need this same kind of hope that sports and other physical activities can offer.
Initiatives such as former NFL all-star Nick Lowery's "Native Vision" empower Indian kids to overcome life's obstacles while learning the fundamentals of football, soccer, baseball, basketball and volleyball. You may have read about Nick and his program in Indian Country Today before (Vol. 23, Iss. 4). He believes a healthy start for kids involves the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual part of the child, with sports being the catalyst.
Physical activity and athletics also keep our youth from becoming overweight. It is disturbing that the U.S. spends $93 billion a year on otherwise preventable obesity and obesity-related illnesses and diseases. I am a proud co-sponsor of the Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to provide grants to tribal and other agencies to promote increased physical activity and improved nutrition for Indian youth, including diabetes prevention.
I am also the main sponsor of the Indian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization Act of 2003, S. 556, which includes key provisions aimed at diabetes programs, health education and Indian youth alcohol and substance abuse. It also authorizes funds to develop comprehensive tribal health education programs for preschool to high school Indian children.
I have always believed that Indian people are in the best position to help their youth and communities. To combat the rising health disparities among Indian youth, tribal health care should include tribal cultural values and community involvement, especially the participation of tribal elders and parents, and, in keeping its promises to Indians, assistance from the Federal government.
These efforts will help ensure Indian youth get healthy, stay healthy and avoid the despair that sends them down a path of destruction.
Getting and staying healthy is a team sport and I encourage you all to join the team.
Colorado's senior U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was the first American Indian to chair the Indian Affairs Committee. Sen. Campbell, a Republican, is a member of three other key Senate committees: Appropriations Committee; Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Veterans' Affairs Committee. In addition Senator Campbell chairs the prestigious Helsinki Commission.