BILLINGS, Mont. ? Tribal leaders from across the High Plains called for a federal "Marshall Plan" in a meeting here Jan. 22 to deal with the growing health crisis on Indian reservations.
When war clouds cleared over Germany, Japan and now Afghanistan, the U.S. offered massive amounts of aid to rebuild the nations, said Alvin Windy Boy Sr., chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe's Business Committee on the Rocky Boy's Reservation in northern Montana.
But Indian tribes didn't get the same deal. "We were annihilated by the turn of the century, but we've never been rebuilt," he said.
The problems continue 100 years later, said the tribal leaders, who began a three-day meeting in Billings Jan. 22 on health disparities. All eight reservations in Montana and Wyoming were represented, as well as numerous reservations from the Dakotas.
This is hardly the first time tribal officials have asked for help, but conference participants said they have higher hopes that their efforts could prompt federal action. The burgeoning diabetes, alcoholism, suicide and disease rates are creating strong alliances ? even between traditional enemies.
"I can't remember the last time we were all together," said Gordon Belcourt, executive director of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, which sponsored the conference in partnership with the Indian Health Service. Although the group spent little time discussing specifics of the health problems -- reams of data have already been published on the topic ? a few facts are worth repeating.
According to the Billings Area Indian Health Service Office, Indians in Montana and Wyoming are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as the
rest of the U.S. population, almost twice as likely to be murdered, six times more likely to die from diabetes, three times more likely to die from the flu or pneumonia and have an average life expectancy nearly a decade lower than the rest of the country.
Substance abuse problems are equally staggering.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services published a unique study in September consisting of 1,821 personal interviews conducted by tribal members. Most other surveys have been conducted over the telephone by non-Indians. On some Montana reservations, fewer than 50 percent of the homes have phones.
The study shows alcohol dependency is three times higher on Montana's reservations than with Montanans living off the reservation. Drug dependency is four times as high. About one in every four pregnant women on Montana's reservations needs treatment for alcohol abuse. One in seven young adults on the reservation is considered addicted to marijuana. Although one in every four adults needs substance abuse treatment, only one in 30 is seeking or able to receive treatment.
More money is needed to help the tribes address the problem, Windy Boy said. The federal government spends about $3,300 on each person receiving Medicare and Medicaid, Windy Boy said. The health spending drops to $1,500 for Indians, he said. "We are actually living in Third World conditions."
Indians were forced to give up their land for white settlers, said Tim Lame Woman, a Northern Cheyenne from Busby. In exchange, the U.S. government promised to care for the tribes.
"Health, education and the general welfare of our people are not gifts from the government," said Lame Woman, a member of his tribe's Health Board. "They are hard fought for and they are treaty rights."