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Indian Health Services celebrates American Indian Heritage Month

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Indian Health Service was one of several agencies that celebrated American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month with ceremonies in November.

The event, titled “Celebrating Tribal Nation’s: America’s Great Partners,” took place in the Great Hall of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building on Nov. 6.

Hankie Ortiz, of Kiowa, Caddo and Comanche descent, served as master of ceremonies. She works as the director of IHS’ Office of Tribal Self-Governance. She noted that HHS has developed a poster that identifies every one of the 562 federally-recognized tribes in the nation.

Several participants at the event took the opportunity to recognize the service of American Indian military members. The IHS American Indian Color Guard, which is composed of tribal members, was on hand to present the colors, and Susan Anderson, a member of the Muscogee Nation, sang the National Anthem.

“The American flag symbolizes the American Indian men and women who are serving our nation in all military and uniform services,” Ortiz said.

An empty chair draped with a Native shawl and yellow roses was placed on stage at the ceremony to symbolize Indians who have given their lives in service.

The Black Bear Singers, a traditional southern-style drum group, also performed songs throughout the event, including the “Honor Flag Song.”

Program speakers included Tevi Troy, deputy secretary of HHS; Robert McSwain, the director of IHS and a member of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians; Jefferson Keel, vice president of the National Congress of American Indian and member of the Chickasaw Nation; and nationally-recognized journalist Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.

Many of the speakers noted the disparities in healthcare between Indians and the rest of the population. The need for the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was also noted by more than one speaker.

Troy thanked several agency officials and staffers who attended the event, and said he was proud that they were there to show a commitment to Indian health issues. He also said that dedication to improving Native health goes far beyond IHS, and noted several departmental programs that foster connections between federal and tribal governments.

McSwain later said that he was grateful to have a month set aside by the federal government to recognize American Indian heritage.

“I think the relationship between tribes and the federal government has evolved since 1975 to the point where it is a rich and growing relationship,” McSwain said, noting that tribes have a choice over how closely they want to work with the government on health issues.

Near the end of his remarks, McSwain marveled at the traditional regalia worn by Ortiz, and called it a “work of art.”

Keel was not as positive. When he asked how many tribal leaders were in the room, very few raised their hands. He also noted that Troy left the ceremony early, saying, “We must have scared him off.”

“As we look back over the course of our journey. … we can’t help but focus on the vast resources, including millions of acres of land, that were taken from Indian tribes in the name of progress,” Keel said, noting that many of these historical injustices are still on the minds of many Indians today.

“As we look back on where we were, we also need to consider where we’re headed, so we can continue to heal those great wounds that are still in existence.

“Together, as Native people, we see hope at the end of the tunnel. Together, we can find the solutions to end our [health] problems.”

Keel said that the day represented proud accomplishments of tribal ancestors who worked tirelessly for years for the greater good of Indian country’s well-being.

Trahant said that the story of tribes and the federal government working together via IHS should be included in any debates about national healthcare reform.

“Most of the problems of IHS that have been identified are questions of resources – money, to be blunt.

“What if you take that away from the equation? What can the country learn from IHS?

“I would argue a great deal. It could learn the value of community-based healthcare. … I think there is a great lesson that could be profound in a national conversation about the role of government healthcare.”

Since the early 1990s, November has been proclaimed by the President of the United States as National American Indian Heritage Month.