Indigenous Peoples Historically Dehumanized, Need Proper Healthcare and Education

Friday, July 23, marked a momentous occasion as the Cleveland baseball franchise announced its adoption of “Guardians” as its moniker, after 106 years of being called “Indians” and, more informally, a “Tribe.” This announcement came as a result of the hard work and perseverance of many Indigenous people and our allies in Northeast Ohio over the decades. While there were individual activists as far back as the 1940s who protested the franchise’s exploitation of Indigenous people— some of whom eventually became American Indian Movement members — it was not until 1970 that a concerted effort was launched to raise awareness about the racist and dehumanizing effects of the franchise’s team name and erstwhile “Wahoo” logo. That year marked the beginning of a half-century of protest by the Cleveland American Indian Movement, and we have demonstrated at every Opening Day since.

While the announcement on July 23 was met by many Native people with bittersweet relief in light of the decades of struggle waged against systematic, overt, institutional racism, others of us greeted this news with joy as well as trepidation. To that end, we fear this new moniker will become yet another in a series of obfuscations surrounding a century of exploitation and marginalization. Simultaneously, we hope ultimately that this name change will be paired with education about Indigenous peoples, sensitivity training regarding our persons, and respect and regard for our interests — systems sorely lacking in Ohio — the absence of which are primary factors contributing to the continual, exponential oppression of Indigenous people in this state. After all, during the last five decades we have heard from opponents on numerous occasions that our protests are not of general importance. At those times, our many detractors have been quick to correct our “misguided” sentiments, while often intimating that there are more compelling topics for our consideration and concern.

So, in that vein, let us consider the following truths: 

Native people are the least educated demographic, according to the U.S. Census. 84.4 percent of Native people had a high school diploma in 2019, versus 93.3 percent of non-Hispanic European Americans. 20.8 percent of Natives aged 25 and over who are in pursuit of higher education held a bachelor’s degree versus 36.9 percent of the non-Hispanic Euro-American population, while 7.6 percent maintained an advanced graduate or professional degree as compared to 13.9 percent of non-Hispanic European-Americans.

Native people have the lowest life expectancy nationally. It is 5.5 years shorter than the United States population as a whole, according to the Indian Health Service,. Our death rate is disproportionately higher across many categories, including deaths due to chronic illnesses like liver disease, cirrhosis, diabetes, and lower respiratory diseases; as well as from accidental or unintentional injuries, alcohol-induced injury, homicide, assault, intentional self-injury, and suicide. Our lack of access to quality healthcare means that Native infants die at nearly twice the rate of non-Hispanic European-American infants, and are 2.7 times more likely to have a fatal accident before one year of age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2019 the rate of tuberculosis infection was nearly 7 times higher among Indigenous people as compared to European-Americans — an incidence rate of 3.4 versus 0.5, respectively — a statistic which further illustrates the profound need in our communities.

Accidents, assaults, homicides, and suicides account for 75 percent of all deaths of Indigenous people in their second decade of life, according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. In 2019, for Native people aged 10 to 34, suicide was the second leading cause of death. The rate of suicide among adolescent Indigenous females aged 15 to 19 was 5.2 times higher than that of adolescent European-American females of the same age — 29.7 versus 5.7, respectively. Additionally, American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls experience high incidences of violence, including alarmingly disproportionate rates of disappearance and murder. The National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 such cases in 2016, while the missing persons database maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice reported only 116 such cases, indicating the need by law enforcement for better record-keeping methods, better reporting, and better techniques to classify the ethnicity or national origin of indigenous women and girls. In 2017, the Urban Indian Health Institute documented an additional 506 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls from 71 urban centers nationwide; UIHI considers 506 to be an undercount and a poor reflection of the true magnitude of this crisis.

At this point it should be noted that American Indians and Alaska Natives represent only 1.7 percent of the total population of the United States, with roughly 80 percent of Indigenous people living off-reservation and 60 percent living in urban areas. Yet the disparity in rates of victimization affecting Indigenous people occurs across housing locations, age groups, and genders. 

In the face of these statistics and the day-to-day realities that they imply, the dedication and sensitivity evidenced by Cleveland AIM activists over the last 50 years to rid the Cleveland baseball franchise of the terms “Indians” and “Wahoo” may indeed seem misplaced. Certainly it is undeniable that dressing in “redface” to show support for Cleveland baseball or displaying “Wahoo” on oneself and property is not as important a concern, for example, as access to proper prenatal care for Indigenous women or adequate accommodations for Indigenous children with special educational needs. Yet, it is as equally undeniable that the reduction of Native people to mascots, logos, and stereotypes perpetuates an environment in which the marginalization, objectification, and subsequent dehumanization of Indigenous people have long been normalized. In the face of this pervasive and enduring process of tokenization, the question then for Indigenous activists becomes whether it is at all reasonable to expect access to “proper” healthcare and “adequate” educational accommodations  — or, indeed, a salve for any number of our solicitudes — when our colonizers do not afford us even the simplest form of respect, that of seeing us as actual living, breathing persons who are replete with emotions, interests, opinions, biases, and fears.